When the U.S. military reported that Osama bin Laden was dead, social media went crazy. By one estimate, Twitter alone had 5,100 tweets per second on the subject that day in May 2011. But a large number of Twitter users and others on social media questioned whether bin Laden could have been identified so rapidly by DNA.
Christie Wilcox, a doctoral student in marine biology at the University of Hawaii, recalled the fuss.
"Everybody was saying, 'No, he couldn't have been ID'd with DNA. They didn't kill him until like 10 hours ago. There is no way you could ID someone that fast. It takes weeks to ID someone with DNA. I've seen it, I've watched the crime shows and stuff. It takes days or weeks,'" said Wilcox, 27, a specialist in venomous fish. "And all this misinformation was getting everywhere."
As it happened, Wilcox had some relevant, hands-on experience: She does DNA sequencing nearly every day in her lab at Oahu's Coconut Island.
"Not on people," she said. "I work on fish. But I know the process and it's all basically the same."
Wilcox spent about 20 minutes checking lab protocols, then wrote a quick description of the process on her blog, called "Science Sushi."
Under the title "How do you ID a dead Osama?," Wilcox went through the process and showed that it could be done in less than five hours.
The blog was almost immediately picked up by the website of Scientific American, where "Science Sushi" has been regular fare. In just two days, 80,000 people looked at one of the two sites.
"But more importantly, they were linked everywhere," Wilcox recalled. "NPR, Nova, Nature ... all across the Web."
Those links, she estimated, could have reached 800,000 to 1 million people.
Such is the power of social media, Wilcox emphasized Saturday in a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. More than 80 people packed into a room that seats 60 to hear Wilcox at Boston's Hynes Convention Center.
Her message: Scientists who do not use social media are missing a monumental opportunity not only to communicate their work to the public, but to collaborate quickly with colleagues and even raise research funds.
"If you're not on social media, you are like the proverbial tree in the forest," she told the audience during an hourlong PowerPoint presentation, stopping once or twice to adjust the flower in her hair. "Sure, you're making a lot of noise, but no one is listening."
Although she has yet to earn her doctorate, Wilcox has become something of a media star thanks to her blog, which last week moved from Scientific American to Discovermagazine.com, and her outspokenness.
On its website featuring the daily highlights of the meeting, the AAAS on Saturday prominently featured a podcast interview with Wilcox by two writers from Science magazine.
Scientists urgently need to tap into social media in a world where 90 percent of the people between age 18 and 30 have some kind of account "and a third of them check it before they get out of bed," Wilcox said.
"If Facebook were a country, it would be the third largest and have twice the U.S. population," she said.
Fifty percent of the commercials during this year's Super Bowl broadcast mentioned Twitter, she said.
But Facebook and Twitter are by no means the only games in town, she emphasized.
Sites such as academia. edu, ImpactStory and figshare can also prove hugely useful to scientists interested in getting their work recognized, she said.
"The problem is, scientists are a little behind the curve," she said. "But I think we can fix this."
Since September 2008, "Science Sushi" (subtitled "Real science. Served raw.") has dealt with such diverse topics as zinc as a treatment for jellyfish stings and the apparent trustworthiness of people with brown eyes.
The blog can be found at blogs.scientificamerican.com/science-sushi and starting last week at blogs.discovermagazine.com/science-sushi.
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