'We need more nuanced debates online'

Tom Ireland talks to Australian molecular biologist and science communicator Upulie Divisekera about the perils and perks of being a scientist on Twitter

The Biologist 65(5) p24-27

Upulie Divisekera is an Australian molecular biologist and science communicator. She is co-founder of the @realscientists Twitter account, which sees different scientists take over each week to post updates and photos from their day-to-day activities. The account has showcased the work of hundreds of everyday scientists and is now followed by almost 70,000 people around the world.

Divisekera is currently studying gold nanoparticles, but has studied molecular parasitology, cancer genetics and immunology, and is involved in a range of science communication and outreach work, including events programming, writing and, of course, tweeting.

She made headlines this year following an online confrontation with tech billionaire Elon Musk, who told his 22 million Twitter followers that her field, nanoscience, was “meaningless” (among other less-polite terms). Divisekera’s explanation of science at the nanoscale in response was subsequently seen by a global audience. She currently lives and works in Melbourne.

Tell me about the @realscientists project. What inspired you to set that up and what impact has it had so far?

I joined Twitter in late 2010 and was just talking about interesting papers and what I was doing in the lab – “hey, I’ve just spun some cells down” – and people seemed fascinated by it. These things are so everyday to us, but it isn’t something people know about.

I met the other co-founders of @realscientists through Twitter. My friend Bernard Kealey came up with the idea to set up an account curated by different scientists on rotation so that people can see how we perform science. As scientists, we really want people to be able to talk to us directly and see what we are like as people – to take away this absurd mystique and elitism around scientists.

I was following the account this morning as two volcanologists drove round Iceland in a jeep taking samples. It is such a different way to ‘consume’ science compared to hearing about science on, say, the news.

Exactly. Understandably, journalists have a limited amount of time, but the footage is always the same: you’ve got someone pipetting in a hood... and it just becomes a blur of science-esque footage. We wanted to move away from that narrow image of science, to give people a feel for what it’s like to do science in the field, how long it takes to do research, what kind of thinking is involved. I’ve learnt so much myself, because I’m not a field biologist.

What does ‘science communication’ mean to you and why do you think it is important?

First, I will talk to anyone about science if they will listen! I think it is fascinating and delightful and beautiful, and I want everyone to enjoy it.

But I also want people to have better access to the research they fund and to increase science literacy. We always have these really absurdly polarised debates: you’re either ‘a supporter of Monsanto’ or ‘a hippy’. We need to have more nuanced debates online.

I want everyday people to feel they can read up on science, not just people who are already interested in it. It’s getting to those audiences that matters to me most.

Your route into research sounds quite unconventional, starting work as a lab assistant at 16. Tell me how that came about.

I grew up in Tasmania, but when I was 10 my family went back to Sri Lanka, where I was born. It was a very dangerous time, with a civil war raging in the north and the east and a lot of violence from an insurgency in the south. There were curfews, and if you travelled for half an hour, you would see bodies by the side of the road where people had been executed. So they shut down all the schools and universities for several years.

As a consequence my schooling was all over the place. When I finally went to school again, I ended up skipping a year. When we went back to Australia, I ended up finishing school at 16. Because we were not Australian citizens, we had to pay full fees for university, and we just didn’t have the money. I was very lucky to get a job as a technical assistant at Melbourne University, under biochemist Professor Mary-Jane Gething, and then I helped support the family while my dad finished his PhD.

Tell me a bit about Dr Cyril Ponnamperuma – he sounds like an extraordinarily influential figure in your career.

My dad wasn’t a scientist, but worked at the Institute of Fundamental Studies, this huge converted hotel overlooking the Sri Lankan city of Kandy. The director, Dr Ponnamperuma, was a very famous scholar. My father, being a proud dad, told him “my daughter is very interested in science” and the director said I could wander around the institute and ask scientists questions. He was a very famous scientist and had worked at NASA’s Ames Research Center. And he basically said I could have free run of the place.

So as a kid, I got to participate in all these science camps, seminars and excursions that he organised. I would even be introduced to visiting dignitaries as the youngest member of the institute. He showed me that there were no boundaries to science – he opened it up to everyone, and said there was no separation between art and science. He was very much ahead of his time.

UP D BW portrait

Can you tell us a bit about your current PhD?

Having worked in cancer research, I’d kind of gone through all the basics of developing therapies and I always thought a PhD in nanotech would be great as a way to look at delivering those therapies. So I’m trying to use proteins and gold nanoparticles to deliver small RNAs as a kind of therapy – just trying to see if we can get it across the cell membrane using different mechanisms. It’s a PhD – sometimes things go wrong.

What other areas of nanotechnology are you interested in?

There is a lot of work where people are making objects and structures from DNA, which I find very exciting. Also people are designing protein structures that are like modules that fit together. If you can use those and hide a drug inside, you can then target it using antibodies... I think inorganic nanoparticles will require more work in terms of being used in vivo.

The other side of nanotechnology is nanomaterials and the miniaturisation of devices, which I think is definitely going to be a big part of the future of the field.

We can’t talk about nanotechnology without talking about your spat with Elon Musk, who told 22 million people that you work in a field that is meaningless and over-hyped. Do you think it was worth all the abuse you got from his fans – have more people read about the wonders of nanobiology thanks to it all?

Yeah, this apparently is now the thing that defines me and forever will. I’ve actually tweeted at Elon Musk many times over the years, mostly about SpaceX, which I am a huge fan of. I’d always been utterly ignored. So I just thought it would be the same! I sent a tweet, went off to the shops to get some dinner, and when I came back I had all these concerned messages – “are you alright?”

To some extent, I agree with him: how the media has adopted the term is very different to the way scientists use it. And there is an overuse of the word ‘nano’ in advertising and so on. But it is a distinct field – it relates to certain kinds of research at the nanoscale. The science at this particular scale is distinct and is important to a huge amount of technology, including some of the products he has invested in.

The positive is that, yes, lots of people were interested in hearing about my research and nanotech. I’ve always found it difficult to enthuse people about complex molecular biology, so nanoscience is really good for that – people are more able to engage with it.

Some of our readers who aren’t on Twitter will wonder if it is worth getting into these debates online when things can get so out of hand so quickly. When we are trying to win arguments about climate change, vaccines, biodiversity loss – is Twitter still a constructive way of doing that?

It has definitely taken a very ugly turn in the last couple of years – probably from about 2015 onwards. It is distinctly toxic and it’s a much more difficult field to navigate. There are more scientists on Twitter now, which is great, but there are lots of people and bots that exist purely to cause havoc, which is very tiring.

I still think it’s worth people going on Twitter. Social media is what you make of it: if you just want to build a network of scientists for yourself, you can do that. That’s still really constructive and part of the reason I’ve survived this PhD is through the support of people I’ve met on Twitter. If you do want to engage with those hot-button topics – GMOs, climate change, vaccines – you quite quickly learn how to spot when someone is acting in bad faith.

Your Twitter account is popular because it’s very unfiltered and honest. Are institutions always supportive of that approach? Many scientists would be hesitant to post their opinions about anything controversial online or to publish anything without their institution’s approval.

My tweets about the PhD experience are to do with me, my abilities to deal with it and being perpetually broke. I don’t want to name my supervisor or put my lab in any kind of jeopardy, because my lab is great and my university has terrific resources for students. I think all of the issues I talk about are not restricted to my university, or Melbourne, or even Australia – they are issues facing the academy in the western world I guess. So I feel okay talking about politics and academia – mentally, I am cutting my own institution out of it, as it has a good record of supporting students and diversity.

I was once invited to go on an Australian equivalent of Question Time called Q&A. I asked my former head of department for advice and she said to me: “Look, you can say what you like, because you have academic freedom”. It was really an amazing thing to say; she gave me a lot of courage.

Have you experienced any racism in your career?

I had a good time at school, but getting to university was different – there was an expectation that you had to be perfect or you were not worthy. You have to always get the best mark to get half as far ahead or half as much praise. So as long as you’re doing things perfectly, it’s all fine. But as soon as there is some sort of error, the repercussions are disproportionately harsh.

Decades later, there are still the same proportions of women and people of colour teaching in the departments I used to work in, and that’s ridiculous. There’s probably been a small increase in gender diversity, not much in terms of racial diversity.

What can societies such as the RSB do to help promote gender and race equality? More and more people are starting to suggest that many existing initiatives and campaigns aren’t working, or change is coming too slowly.

I’ve been working in labs since I was 16 and it is amazing to see how little has changed. We’ve been talking about the gender issue for 20 years now. The Athena SWAN charter has helped a bit, but it’s really deep cultural change we’re asking for. We can hope for that to happen, but in the meantime, we might have to introduce institutional change and particular programmes. I’m not a fan of quotas, but I think perhaps we’re at a stage where we need to do that.

You can have any number of training sessions on this, but people have to take the initiative and want to do this. The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research has got the right idea – it has childcare on site and has worked hard to hire women and indigenous women. That has come from the director. For me, the biggest shock is that the best people don’t always make it through because they aren’t supported enough. It’s awful to see really good people leave science. But the discussions around this are starting to change – I’ve noticed there has been a push to introduce five-year terms and grants so people can have some certainty in their life. Change needs to happen at all levels of society – even at the tutoring and supervisor level, you need to have more diversity and people looking out for reasons why someone might be struggling.

Down the track in, say, 10 years, I hope there will be some big cultural change taking effect from the incoming crew. Those discussions we’re having on Twitter now are finally making it into the mainstream.

Upulie Divisekera is currently studying for a PhD at Monash University having previously worked at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Melbourne. She also gives public talks on science and can be found tweeting at twitter.com/upulie