I have a wardrobe full of food-print dresses, hundreds of pairs of food shaped earrings, a collection of food-themed hair accessories, and even a handbag shaped like a lemon wedge.
If you follow me on social media, you will see a new combination of foods multiple times a week. But I’m not a fashion account – I’m a Food and Nutrition Scientist and Science Communicator. I say, “Come for the food fashion, stay for the food science!”
I didn’t deliberately set out to “build a brand” or become a caricature of myself, but when I stop and reflect on how I ended up here, I’m not sad and I’m not surprised. I am living my best Ms Frizzle life and loving it.
I’m an identical twin
Having a genetic clone, I’ve always used hair, makeup, clothes and accessories to reduce confusion and set myself apart from my sister.
After I finished my PhD and started my fellowship, I went through a phase of “dressing professionally” as I tried to mimic what I saw in the workplace around me. I felt like I lost myself for a little bit in that time, looking in the mirror I didn’t see me, I saw my twin sister.
Luckily, I stopped listening to the “conventional wisdom,” re-equilibrated and found my loud fruity-ness again.
Stealing from the influencers
When I first joined social media, I was a wide-eyed, idealistic PhD student looking to change the world. Wellness bloggers, celebrity chefs and influencers were talking to the world about food and nutrition while actual experts were talking amongst themselves.
Anti-expert sentiment was growing and even on social media I saw expert after expert keeping it professional and sticking to the facts. Experts were talking to the media and facts were getting twisted for clicks, for the sake of simplification, or through misunderstandings.
I thought about the issue of anti-expert sentiment and trust and realised no one was going to trust an anonymous lab coat in glasses.
People trust people, not facts.
This is exactly what the influencers were doing, they build the trust and the community, and that’s why we buy what they are selling, even if the facts don’t add up. I know lots of scientists, doctors and other professionals like to keep their social media accounts professional. But for me, being all me, profession, outfits, cats, football, emotion and all helps be build that trust. And it means a diverse range of people follow me to tell me what they think, need and worry about in my area of expertise.
I look like a scientist
Through twitter I found the hashtags #ILookLikeAScientist and #ScientistsWhoSelfie. This empowered me as a woman and an applied scientist to share my personality and story. As I shared selfies, I noticed that people were particularly excited about them when I wore my strawberry or pineapple earrings. These then became my special occasion and conference earrings. On a trip to Tokyo for a conference, I wanted a pair of sushi earrings as a souvenir. Takeshita Street provided me with 15 or so pairs of food earrings, and suddenly I was a food earring collector.
It makes people happy & starts conversations
Around the same time, I got some food-print dresses. I hadn’t originally purchased them because they were food, but because they were loud and bright and fun. They made me happy, and it turns out they make other people happy. Online, at conferences, at work, in meetings, random people in the street… they started conversations and made people smile. I realised they were the ultimate icebreaker. I can wear my fruit salad dress and talk about fruit intake recommendations, or my veggie dress and talk about ways of adding veggies to your diet, or my chocolate desserts dress can start a conversation about guilt and junk foods.
It’s on brand
In the last couple of years, I spend some time working with Emma Donnelly from Comm-it, a professional science communicator and communications trainer. I had fallen into science communication through sheer enthusiasm and determination. Like my social media, I hadn’t given much thought to “who” I was in my communications. I knew that I was a sassy myth buster, but I hadn’t really given much thought to a persona or my style. In a training session, Emma added me to her list of science communicators with a visual brand, along with Dr Karl and his loud shirts, Prof Alan Duffy and his bow tie, Fiona Wood and her pearls. I realised I was kind of stuck with food outfits, and I realised I didn’t mind one bit!
Not everyone likes it
Online trolls have accused me of promoting junk food and diabetes when I wear my doughnut dress or my cereal box earrings. I have been told to dress more sensibly by Professors. I’ve been mistaken for a student in multiple settings, including the staff car park. But for every one of those reactions I’ve had thousands of likes and re-tweets, hundreds of great conversations started, and more compliments and kindness than I can count. It’s actually an excellent jerk filter. If someone doesn’t want to work with me or take me seriously because of my appearance, I really don’t want to work with them anyway!
I’ve had young women tell me they see themselves in science now. I’ve had mums and dads tell me their children look up to me. I’ve been on TV, radio, in magazines and newspapers. I’ve had other women tell me they feel brave to wear the clothes they want to, rather than the ones they are expected to wear.
I want to do good science, and I do want to change the world.
Some people think that I’m just a social media scientist, that I can’t wear food outfits and be a serious career researcher. But I’m less than 4 years post-PhD, have a competitive fellowship, an ongoing position, 5 PhD students, an H-index of 16, and more than 1000 citations.
Turns out, in the modern world, you can do good science, communicate facts, be authentic, AND look fabulous doing it.
Author Bio: Dr Emma Beckett is an NHMRC Early Career Research Fellow and Lecturer in Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Newcastle, Australia.