Flash point: Why did citizen science make national and international headlines?
In short....I really don't know. Initially we were looking for a project that could be fun for members of BioQuisitive and our Melbourne based community of life science enthusiasts, BioHack Melbourne, to take part in for some "science action." Previously, we had come across Dr. Masons work based around the microbiomes of NYC subway systems and had discussed the possibility of running something similar here in Melbourne on our own or with Monash Makerspace (a similar student led initiative led out of Monash University). So it was pretty crazy when we were give the opportunity to speak directly to Christopher Mason about joining his international consortium of researchers all doing the same study for their local public transport systems.
The 21st of June was known as "international swab day" and here in Melbourne we had roughly 10 volunteers arrive to brave the freezing Melbourne winter just to wield Copan Eswabs for science. It was a mixture of citizens, science students, and scientists working together to collect swabs from 7 of the central train stations in Melbourne Australia. At the end of the day, we had collected 97 samples!
We were really late to the game though. Before swab day, we joined with only a few weeks to get organised with things like permission from Metro Trains to swab in and around the train stations themselves, which we didn't get. This mean't we had to swab areas outside the stations but not directly in the stations. This still gives a good representation of the bacteria that are living on public transport. Many people touch plenty of surfaces on their way to the train stations, so it should be a good representation. Hopefully next year we can organise permission and get through admin hurdles well ahead of time.
On the 20th, as an after thought, we sent out a basic email to both Vice and The Age. We thought it would be more likely that Vice would pick up the story than The Age but wrong were we.
Once the story had run on the night of the 28th, BioQuisitive director "Mr. Gray" was awoken with phone calls from pretty much every mainstream media outlet in Melbourne at around 6AM to start doing interviews by 7AM on the 29th. The article from The Age, owned by Fairfax Media, had been syndicated meaning the article had been published internationally. Locally, news stations had been very interested in covering the story with a film crew. So we had SBS, channel 9 and channel 10 come to BioQuisitive to run an interview at the same time.
To date the story has aired on 4 TV stations; Channel 7, 9, 10, and SBS. It has been published in numerous newspapers and online forums, and we've aired over the radio more times than you should in a day. So what did we learn? Here are the takeaways:
Press Releases are essential.
It's a pre canned statement that pushes a message that doesn't need to be communicated over and over as it's freely available to reporters to refer back to. This is so you don't have to keep answering your phone ever 10 minutes to explain the same story. It should have plenty of content and interesting facts/stats about the "whatever". The story needs to connect with the reader. Most of us use public transport, everyone thinks bacteria or "germs" are gross, so this was a good story (#notallbacteria). I'd like to say that citizen science and community labs are also interesting but that's a bias I have, and because this went so well the first time around, it's hard to attribute success to any specific thing that was done, sorry.
If you're going to contact any media outlets, contact them all.
This ensures that you have people looking to get your message across without any distortion, if you only contact one, you're at the mercy of their editors as far as how the story gets run.
Consider who is involved in the story, and get in contact/make arrangements.
This story involved a guy named Andrew who happened to be a Monash University student, part of a community lab named BioQuisitive, working with volunteers to do some sort of study, in and around public transport. If you have a read of the article, you'll see that they don't mention BioQuisitive in the article once. BioQuisitive's name/involvement should have been made much more clear. The reporter had been asked to give a link to Monash University, yet we failed to contact Monash University to let them know we had done so. The result was a torrent of phone calls to Monash asking to speak to anyone from BioQuisitive regarding this study. Monash had no clue what these callers were on about. Needless to say, we're now very acquainted with the Monash media team. Being a volunteer/community project, why is there only one person doing all the swabbing? This should have been organized with the volunteers before hand to set aside a time for interviews/press coverage. Preferably during the swab day itself. Also, Metro Trains is involved in this story, where are they in all of this? How has their image been affected by this?
Big wins for DIYbio.
Citizen science went international and made headlines for a brief moment thanks to the Metasub Project and Dr. Christopher Mason giving a community and it's science lab in Australia a chance to partake in something really cool. Our community science lab was shown "in action" (at least the media version of action.) No we don't use Teenage Ninja turtle candles for all of our aseptic techniques. We only have one and we save it for special occasions. Also, I'm sure there are a couple of people out there who may have the potential to make some huge progress in the name of DIYbio here in Australia who are now aware of the movement. Obvious wins for BioQuisitive publicity wise, and a bit of a surreal, overwhelming and exciting couple of days for its members.
We'll be looking to get involved with more studies like this one so we can once again pass on the opportunity for citizens, students and whoever else to be engaged in meaningful scientific research while implementing some of our new found takeaways. We'll definitely be creating an in house system for how we handle press releases in the future :P
It's crazy, for a brief moment in time you can forget about everything else happening around you, and when things quieten back down, you just shrug and continue on with it.
Thanks for the support everyone!