The long hot summer of mosquito and media wrangling

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“Webb’s a mosquito researcher with NSW Health Pathology, and while it may sound like potentially the worst job in the world to the rest of us, it’s important work.” – Ten Daily, 14 Jan 2019.

Every summer I’m required to juggle those pesky mosquitoes and help out with requests from media. Over the past 6 months or so I’ve responded to about 70 media requests and here is a round up of some fun highlights and other bits and pieces.

There was a wide range of media requests this summer, from morning TV through to talkback radio, podcasts and live interviews via Skype. There was once a time when the only acceptable way to do a radio interview was via landline connected phone. This summer I did interviews via mobile, Skype, and various  smartphone apps! Times are a changing.

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A fun segment on Channel 7’s ‘Sunrise’ breakfast show on why mosquitoes bite some people more than others; always a challenge taking in a cage a live mosquitoes to the studio, especially travelling in via public transport!

A hot and dry summer must mean less mosquitoes, right?

The outlook for the 2018-2019 “mosquito season” was for it to be fairly routine. The Bureau of Meteorology was predicting a hot and dry summer under the influence of El Nino. At the time I wrote a piece for The Conversation highlighting that just because it was dry, that didn’t mean we wouldn’t see plenty of mosquitoes.

In coastal regions of Australia, tidal flooding of local wetlands often offsets any impact due to lack of rainfall. Mosquitoes such as Aedes vigilax certainly respond well and there were some very high mosquito numbers recorded in early spring. Usually, the media interest in mosquitoes starts increasing once the politicians break for the summer, this year there was plenty of interest early on!

NSW Health also issued a media release to get the community thinking about the potential mosquito impacts ahead of the summer holiday period and asked me to be the spokesperson. These warnings often prompt a different range of media interest, usually news bulletins for radio. Unlike the traditional radio interviews in which you’re responding to the host’s questions, only “grabs” (short statements regarding the topic) are required. I’ve learned there is a fine art to being concise in these statements and it pays to give some thought to what you’ll say ahead of calling up the news desk!

Some of the media coverage in early summer was less about bites and more about why mosquitoes disturb your sleep! I spoke with Channel Ten about how you can beat these bedroom buzzers! Here are some tips on beating the buzz of mosquitoes in the bedroom.

These concerns about mosquitoes in the bedroom prompted questions about the suitability of mosquito coils as a person protection measures. I’d written about this issue before but there was also some media coverage at the Daily Telegraph and Sydney Morning Herald.

There was also a funny segment on The Project:

Warm weather, warm blood, and hungry mosquitoes

As summer kicked in, I did a bunch of “pre-season” interviews about the outlook for the mosquito activity ahead. One of them was with the Sydney Morning Herald. There was also a piece in Illawarra Murcury on the mosquitoes around Newcastle. I even chatted with ABC Illawarra about the mosquitoes bringing in the new year along the NSW coast. I also chatted with the team at the Daily Mail. Also the Daily Telegraph.

Once summer really hit (and the mosquitoes really started biting following heavy rains), everyone’s mind turned to one of the most commonly asked questions….why do mosquitoes bite me more than my friends? You can check out my contribution to a story by ABC Science below:

The usual coverage of mosquito impacts during the Australia Day holiday also popped up. Will my diet influence the likelihood of being bitten? I spoke with Channel Ten. The University of Sydney media team also put out a piece on why what you eat or drink makes not difference when it comes to stopping mosquito bites. A story picked up and republished by ABC News.

Combining fieldwork and media requests

“Ballina council is calling in an expert to hunt for some ladies – Medical Entomologist Dr Cameron Webb will visit the area next week in search of blood sucking girls.” – EchoNet Daily, Ballina

While undertaking some work for Ballina Shire Council on the NSW far north coast, I helped out managing a few media requests associated with local mosquito problems and the work of council. It was fun squeezing in some print, TV, radio, and social media activities between the work in the wetlands.

I also participated in a “Q and A” on the Ballina Shire Council Facebook page where residents could ask questions about how best to protect themselves from mosquitoes. See here.

Mosquito-borne disease in the city

The detection of Ross River virus in mosquitoes around Sydney sparked some additional interest from media (and anxiety from local community). Coverage in Sydney Morning Herald here.  It prompted me to write an article about what the actual health implications were of finding the pathogen in a heavily urbanised areas such as the Parramatta River compared to the more bushland dominated Georges River.

The issue of wildlife and their role in urban transmission cycles of Ross River virus is always a tricky one. How do you balance wildlife conservation and mitigation of health risks? Together will colleagues I wrote about this at The Conversation.

The media coverage of the Ross River virus detection provided an opportunity for NSW Health Pathology to share some insights into how we research local mosquitoes and the pathogens they’re carrying. See below for a short video from the mangroves along the Parramatta River.

Declining insects, increasing mosquitoes, and the need to spray our backyards

One of the other stories bubbling along during the last year or so were the reports of declining global insect populations. I first spoke to the media about this issue back in early 2018. I was quoted in a couple of other stories too, clearly there was a lot of interest in this issue. This story gained plenty of attention and I spoke with various radio and print media about this challenge were facing with potential insect declines and how we can measure them. I even wrote an article about whether mosquitoes may be in decline too!

I spoke about this issue, and more generally about mosquitoes on an episode of the Science on Top podcast too.

There has been suggestions that insecticides may be contributing to declining insect populations. Earlier in the year, I was one of the coauthors of a paper that called for the need to better understand integrated pest control in our cities and become less reliant on insecticides. There was also an associated article at The Conversation. This was also republished at Domain.

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Floods in the north, floods in the south

The incredible flooding around Townsville in far north QLD created some major concern. Despite some initial concerns about increased mosquito risk, there weren’t any substantial increases in mosquito-borne disease reported. I spoke to ABC News about the potential risks.

The flooding that did trigger a big boost in mosquito numbers occurred in SE QLD and northern NSW. Local wetlands were inundated by tides and rain, resulting in some phenomenal numbers of mosquitoes in early autumn. I spoke to ABC and Great Lakes Advocate about the climatic factors that triggered this unusual mosquito activity.

Everyone was on weather watch late in the season too. A few extra downpours prompted concerns about more increases in autumn mosquito populations. I spoke with Sydney Morning Herald after a particularly wet weekend in March.

Finally, I helped the Australian Academy of Science make a video exploring why mosquitoes bite and how to stop them!

Join the conversation on Twitter, did you catch me talking mosquitoes this summer? Did it help you protect your family from mosquito bites?

Mosquitoes feed on frogs, very small frogs…

I was excited to be asked back on the Science on Top podcast recently to record an episode about mosquitoes, currently declines in insect populations (are mosquitoes on the way out too?), and whether recent flooding in north QLD would result in increased mosquito populations and risk of mosquito-borne disease outbreak.

Please subscribe to the podcast, its a really fun and relaxed look at whats making headlines in the science world. The crew themselves describe the podcast as:

The Australian podcast about science, health and technology news. Join Ed Brown and his panel of co-hosts each week as we talk about the latest and coolest research and discoveries in the world of science. We’re joined by special guests from all over the science field: doctors, professors, nurses, teachers and more.

If you’re interested, you can chase up my previous guest spot with them talking “Everything Zika” back in 2016.

I still hold some aspirations of starting my own podcast. Problem is finding the time (there isn’t even enough time to catch up on my podcast “to do” list). Perhaps this is a project for the coming summer.

Would you listen to a podcast about mosquitoes and the people who study them?

You can catch up on a couple of other podcasts I’ve guested on over the past few years. Check out Flash Forward (The Ultimate Swatting) and Arthropod (Getting to Know Mosquitoes).

Oh, and mosquitoes do feed on frogs. Frog blood, not the whole thing. It would have to be a very small frog…

 

 

 

A flood of festive season media coverage

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Spring is gone and with the arrival of summer comes the mosquitoes. Calls from the media inevitably follow shortly after. I have no doubt many journalists, broadcasters and producers have my name in their diaries, circled brightly in red, on the first day of summer!

It is a fun part of my job to deal with the media. Its more than just getting a chance to talk about mosquitoes and their role in the local environment, it also provides an opportunity to do some important public health communications around the issues of mosquito bite prevention and management of mosquito-borne disease.

Scorchers, sun protection, and buzzing bloodsuckers

What got the ball rolling this year was a joint media briefing arranged by ausSMC. Alongside colleagues talking about heat waves, summer storms, sun protection and bushfire, I shared some tips on protecting yourself from mosquito bites and mosquito-borne disease this summer. It was interesting speaking alongside Professor Sanchia Aranda, CEO of Cancer Council Australia, and comparing the ways we promote safe and effective use of sunscreens and mosquito repellents. This was picked up on in additional media coverage. Overall, there was over 300 local and international articles following this media briefing!

The briefing provided an opportunity to fill a gap in public health communication I’ve identified (and tried to fill) in recent years. Health authorities are pretty good at providing advice on choosing mosquito repellents but less so on using them effectively. Ensuring repellents are actually used effectively is the best way to increase the protection of the community against mosquito-borne disease.

In early December we held our “Sydney Ideas: Mosquitoes in the City” event at Westmead. This was a great opportunity to speak to the community and the well attended event prompted some broader interest in the work of presenters.

It was a pleasure being able to visit the studios of ABC Radio National with Prof Tony Capon, Professor of Planetary Health at the University of Sydney, to discuss with Philip Adams how urbanisation and a changing climate may influence local mosquito populations and mosquito-borne disease risk. I’m working more and more with Tony so nice to share the opportunity to talk about this initiative with him on national radio. You can listen back here. This work is strongly linked to the theme of the “Mosquitoes in the City” event and there is clearly much to learn regarding the place of mosquitoes, wetlands, wildlife and mosquito-borne disease at the fringes of our metropolitan regions under the influence of a changing climate and the ways urban design responds to the threat.

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Why me? I wish mozzies would bite my friends instead!

There was another boost in interest resulting from a spot on ABC News 24 Weekend Breakfast. The accompanying online article explaining why mosquitoes are more likely to bite some people more than others then sparked considerable interest! What followed was a bunch of radio and television interviews.

There was also a follow up article at News.com.au and this was also picked up on “Kids News” who republished a modified version of the story together with some suggestions for classroom learning exercises. Nice.

There were two different experiences with ABC News. The appearance on Weekend Breakfast was great. I’ve done segments with Andrew Geoghegan and Miriam Corowa before, have always been impressed with their knowledge and interest. I really enjoy the relaxed feel on the show. Was also a pleasure working with Dale Drinkwater, the producer, who put together the segment and accompanying article.

A couple of days later I appeared on News Breakfast with Virginia Trioli. As the program is produced out of Melbourne, I had to do a live cross from the Sydney studios. I always find these interviews a little uncomfortable as I’m tucked away in a small, dark recording booth staring down a camera and hoping my ear piece doesn’t fall out! I’m sure there is an art to these but I’m not sure I’ve mastered that just yet.

 

Once the mozzies start biting…

With the warm weather arriving and everyone’s minds turning to summer, there is always a flood of festive season-related media stories. Once the mozzie stories started popping up, many more media outlets starting running segments.

There were also warnings about the health threats of mosquitoes over the festive season from local health authorities.

I had the chance to visit many radio and television studios to conduct interviews, this time it was the first opportunity to visit the Macquarie Radio (home to 2UE and 2GB) for what turned out to be a relatively long (by commercial radio standards) interview with Tim Webster on Talking Lifestyle/2UE including a few callers asking about mosquito repellents, disease risk and what the “purpose” of mosquitoes actually is! Listen back via the Holiday and Home podcast.

Taking talkback can be tricky. I’m fortunate enough to have had an opportunity to do this reasonably routinely. I appreciate the opportunity to get a feel for what the community wants to know about mosquitoes, we should be taking these things into account when designing fact sheets and other communication material. There is no point in simply systematically repeating what has come before.

Live TV can also be tricky. I also had the chance to do segments on Channel Nine’s Today and Today Extra programs. These are always fun and I do find it fascinating to see how the behind-the-scenes production of these shows get put together.

Even the local newspaper, the Parramatta Sun, ran a nice story with great shot of me among the mangroves of the Parramatta River. It is also fun dragging photographers out into the wetlands. This time a fun shot of me from a different perspective other than simply standing beside a mosquito trap!

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There was certainly plenty of “buzz” (or should that be “hum”) about mosquitoes over recent weeks. Great to see other articles pop up by fellow science communicators as well as the occasionally celebrity. There can never be too many ways to get the message out!

The mosquito coil conversation

At the point where I thought everyone was getting sick of mosquitoes, my latest article on the safe and effective use of mosquito coils was published at The Conversation (as well as being republished by ABC News). To date there have been about 90,000 clicks on the article, highlighting just how interested people are in the topic.

There were a bunch of other interview requests on the back of this including ABC Sydney, ABC Brisbane and ABC Adelaide. You can listen back to my chat with James Valentine on ABC Nationwide Afternoons here.

It isn’t always easy managing media requests

To finish up, I think it is important to share some of the reality of wrangling all these media requests. Most importantly, it takes time. It takes time to prepare and it takes much more time to actually do these activities.

For live television appearances, that often only last a few moments, you’re typically asked to arrive at the studios 30-40min prior to scheduled interview. Notwithstanding the travel time back and forth from studios (often very early in the morning), this means the interruption to the day isn’t insignificant. There was one day that I participated in two different teleconferences while in transit to and between interviews at ABC in Ultimo and Channel Nine in Willoughby!

The other thing is that sometimes you’ll get bumped. I was scheduled to chat on a live television program that requested I bring along a cage of live mosquitoes. This is generally not a problem but it does take time, especially when I have to actually collect field caught mosquitoes especially for this purpose. Unfortunately, the segment got bumped on one day, rescheduled for the next and then bumped again for a second time.

It would be easy to get really upset in these circumstances but it is a reality of dealing with the media. Don’t take it personally as these things are mostly out of your control. If you’re keen to engage with the media, this is just one of the many challenges you’ll need to learn to manage.

Spot any other cool mozzie media things? Join the conversation on Twitter or Facebook!

 

Could a podcast stop mosquito bites?

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This week I’m attending OzPod 2016: the Australian Podcast Conference, a workshop at the ABC, Ultimo. Celebrating International Podcast Day, the workshop brings together podcasters for “an event for the expanding podcast industry to escape the studio or office and meet with peers to share experiences, information, insights and ideas around audience acquisition and retention, new technologies, the rise of the podcast in traditional media, monetizing and of course the fine art of storytelling.”

 So, why am I going? I don’t even have a podcast!

I may not have a podcast now but I hope to start playing around with the platform soon as a complement to my other efforts to spread the word on science communication and public health awareness.

I’ve been thinking about kicking off a podcast for a while but have been a little reluctant due to time commitments. More importantly, I’ve also wanted to have a clear idea of what exactly I want to do.

In a previous life, I co-hosted a radio show on FBI Radio (during their test broadcast days) with my wife called “Good Morning Gidget”. It was a Saturday morning show of surf music and interviews with professionals involved in a wide range of coastal-based activities, from marine biologists to surf shop owners. Despite the early start on a Saturday morning, it was a load of fun. I’d also worked behind the scenes producing a couple of music shows. If I had more time, I really would have liked to pursue more work with community radio.

Perhaps podcasting will be the backup plan.

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It’s great to listen back to packaged interviews with radio, like the Health Report (I’m talking zika virus) but I was also lucky enough to have a chance to contribute to a few podcasts this year. I spoke with Science On Top about the outbreak of Zika virus and the implications it has for Australia, Flash Forward on what will happen if we eradicate mosquitoes from the planet and ArthroPod on what its like to study mosquitoes for a living!

All these were a lot of fun and were really motivating for me to want to get started with podcasting myself.

I feel like my experience with sound recording and ongoing engagement with media provides a solid background in most of the technical skills I need to get started. I’m hoping I’ll leave the OzPod 2016 conference with a few more tips on story telling and structuring a podcast too.

What I’ve been struggling with is format. I like the conversational nature of most podcasts but as I’ll probably be doing everything myself, perhaps a more structured and edited podcast is the go?

There are very few podcasts I listen to that are built around a one-person show. I’m not sure I could pull it off. Does anyone really want to listen to me ramble on for 20 mins about mosquitoes? 40minutes?

Sometime over the coming summer I hope to launch a short series of podcasts covering some of the basics of mosquito biology and how that relates to the ways we protect ourselves and our families from mosquito bites and mosquito-borne disease. I want to share my fascination with mosquitoes and explore some of the gaps in our understanding of mosquitoes, particularly their role in our local environment. 

Hopefully I can recruit some of my colleagues from around Australia for a chat too so we can share a little about the science behind our public health messages and what life is like to be chasing mosquitoes around swamps all summer

Sound like a good idea? Join the conversation on Twitter and let me know what you think, would you listen to a podcast about Australian mosquitoes?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Social media and blood suckers showcased at the International Congress of Entomology

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Digital technology is changing a lot about how we undertake entomological research and communicate the results of that research to the community and policy makers.

This week in Orlando, Florida, is the International Congress of Entomology (ICE). A huge gathering of entomologists from around the world. While it was a great pleasure to be invited to participate, I couldn’t get over there this time.

I will, however, have a chance to present my work in the Symposium “Entomology in the Digital Age”  Friday, September 30, 2016 (01:30 PM – 04:45 PM), Convention Centre Room W222 A.

In the presentation I’ll share some of the reasoning behind my use of social media to engage the community with both entomological research and public health communication. Most importantly, it will focus on some of the metrics I’ve recorded alongside my use of social media, maintaining a blog of research and writing for outlets such as The Conversation.

I’ve written about my use of social media and how it can help extend the reach of public health messages and presented on the topic alongside a range of great speakers at the 2014 Entomological Society of America meeting in Portland.

This time around, technology is playing an even more direct role in my presentation! I’ve pre-recorded my presentation and it will be shown to the audience on the day among other presentations. I’ll also be checking into the session to answer questions. Despite the fact I’ll need to be up around 1:30am due to time differences, it should be fun.

See the abstract below…

Taking entomological research from the swamps to the suburbs with social media

Cameron E Webb

Connecting scientists and the community is critical. This is particularly the case for medical entomologists working in the field of mosquito-borne disease where the translation of entomological research into improved public health outcomes is a priority. While traditional media has been the mainstay of public health communications by local authorities, social media provides new avenues for disseminating information and engaging with the wider community. This presentation will share some insights into how the use of social media has connected new and old communications strategies to not only extend the reach of public health messages but also provide an opportunity to promote entomological research and wetland conservation. A range of social media platforms, including Twitter, Instagram, and WordPress, were employed to disseminate public health messages and engage the community and traditional media outlets. Engagement with the accounts of traditional media (e.g. radio, print, television, online) was found to be the main route to increased exposure and, subsequently, to increased access of public health information online. With the increasing accessibility of the community to online resources via smartphones, researchers and public health advocates must develop strategies to effectively use social media. Many people now turn to social media as a source of news and information and those in the field of public health, as well as entomological research more generally, must take advantage of these new opportunities. doi: 10.1603/ICE.2016.94611


If you’re at ICE, you can also catch up with my PhD student David Lilly who’ll be presenting our research into the development of insecticide resistance in bed bugs as part of the symposium “New Insights into Biology, Resistance Mechanisms, and the Management of the Modern Bed Bug” Friday, September 30, 2016, 01:30 PM – 04:45 PM, Convention Center, West Hall F4 (WF4).

Novel insecticide resistant mechanisms in the common bed bug, Cimex lectularius

David Lilly, Cameron E Webb and Stephen Doggett

Introduction: Research on field strains of Cimex lectularius from Australia has identified widespread resistance to pyrethroid insecticides, but variability in the magnitude expressed. To determine if differences in resistance mechanisms exist, collected strains were examined for the presence of metabolic detoxification and/or cuticle thickening. Methods: The presence and relative contribution of detoxifying esterases or cytochrome P450 monooxygenases were assessed. Bed bugs collected from Parramatta (NSW), Melbourne (VIC) – 2 strains, ‘No.2’ and ‘No.4’, and Alice Springs (NT) were exposed in topical bioassays employing deltamethrin and two pyrethroid synergists: piperonyl butoxide (PBO) and EN16/5-1. PBO inhibits both monooxygenases and esterases, whereas EN16/5-1 will inhibit esterases only. Thus in a comparative bioassay, the results can infer the dominant enzyme system. The Parramatta strain was then selected to study the potential presence of cuticle thickening. Nine-day-old male bed bugs were exposed to filter papers treated with the highest label rate of Demand Insecticide®(200mL/10L of 25g/L lambda-cyhalothrin) and were grouped according to time-to-knockdown (< 2 hours, ≥ 4 hours, and survivors at 24 hours). Measurements of mean cuticle thickness at the transverse midpoint of the second leg tarsus were taken under electron microscope. Results/Conclusion: All strains possessed resistance that was inhibited by the synergists, with the Parramatta and Melbourne No.2 indicating esterase-dominance, and Alice Springs and Melbourne No.4 indicating cytochrome P450 monooxygenase-dominance. Cuticular measurements demonstrated that bed bugs surviving deltamethrin exposure had significantly thicker cuticles, denoting a novel form of resistance in these insects. doi: 10.1603/ICE.2016.92553

 

You can also see Stephen Doggett (co-author and photographer of A Guide to Mosquitoes of Australia) speaking on photographing mosquitoes to in the symposium “Insect Photography Symposium: Bringing the Small to the World.


You can join the conversation on Twitter and keep an eye on all the fun in Orlando by keeping an eye on the tweet stream!

 

Summer summary of mosquito media madness

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Summer is always a busy time for me. As well as plenty of time sloshing about in the wetlands, there is often lots of interest from mosquito-curious media. There has been some intense bursts of activity in previous summers but the 2015-2016 was particularly interesting.

I certainly covered some new ground this summer. I responded to over 160 individual media requests in the past 6 months. From flies and food safety to the emergence of Zika virus. Here is a wrap from my media adventures and some valuable lessons learned for future science and public health communication.

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The good news of new virus discoveries

Usually, the discovery of a new mosquito-borne virus brings with it new concern for public health. This time though, there was some good news.

Towards the end of 2015, a paper reporting on a collaborative research project between University of Queensland, QLD Health and University of Sydney was published in Virology. This was the first publication detailing the discovery of Parramatta River virus, an insect specific virus that exclusively infects the mosquito Aedes vigilax. This virus does not infect people and poses no health risk.

A joint media release was issued by University of Queensland and University of Sydney and there was plenty of media attention. Not surprising given the usual negative associations with mosquito-borne pathogens!

There were dozens of articles, much of the attention focused on the team at University of QLD. Dr Jody Hobson-Peters was kept busy with local media including ABC and Brisbane Times. It was a great experience sharing the research with colleagues in Queensland, particularly great seeing so much exposure for PhD student Breeanna McLean and her newly published research.

I was surprised at how little attention there was in the news from Sydney media. The lesson here though was more about bad timing than uninteresting research. A couple of weeks after the initial media release, I forwarded around a few emails and sent out a couple of tweets and next thing you know, we made the front page of the local newspaper, the Parramatta Advertiser (see above). It was some great local coverage, not only about the virus discovery but it also provided an opportunity to raise awareness of mosquitoes and mosquito-borne disease on the eve of summer!

Lesson learned: A good reminder that if your research isn’t picked up immediately, give it another shot a few weeks later. Timing may make all the difference but perseverance does too!

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To stop sickness, swat or spray

Just in time for Christmas lunch and summer holiday picnics, I published an article on flies and food safety at The Conversation. I really expected this article to slip under the radar of most people. Coming out on Christmas eve doesn’t seem likely many would be clicking about on the internet but within a few days over 600,000 people had clicked on the piece!

Many of those clicks were thanks to the article being shared by IFLS but there was also plenty of interest from local media and I was busy with interview requests from ABC Local Radio across the country. Who doesn’t love hearing about how flies poop and vomit on your food? I was even interviewed by Grey Nomad Magazine!

Lesson learned: Applying a little science to seasonal urban myths and common uncertainties can prove popular and may be a good opportunity to promote a little science!

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Rain, rain everywhere with mozzies soon to come

With all the talk of El Nino and predictions of a hot and dry summer for the east coast of Australia, the summer was actually reasonably mild and extremely wet. Sydney was particularly battered by a series of storms and intense rainfall early in 2016.

More water generally means more mosquitoes. In response to the rain, many media outlets were interested in chatting about the prospects of a bumper mosquito problem. As well as talking about the prospects of an increase in mosquito-borne disease risk, it was a great opportunity to talk about personal protection measures.

There were some radio, print and tv spots that provided opportunities to talk about how to choose and use the right repellents.

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In 2015 I published a paper in the Medical Journal of Australia explaining that health authorities need to provide more guidance on how the community can get mosquito repellents working more effectively.

Typical health warnings and media release from health authorities (usually limited to grabs on news bulletins) but when there is an opportunity to do longer form radio interviews, there is a chance to put an emphasis on aspect of public health messages. The hook to get these longer spots is giving more than just warnings, by mixing up some interesting things about mosquitoes, you can catch a little extra attention and sneak in the public health messages between the fun and fascinating facts about mosquitoes!

One news outlet was really insistent in grabbing a hold of me for some comments ahead of the evening bulletin. They even sent a crew to meet me in the city while I was taking the kids along to the Sydney Festival!

Lesson learned: When doing tv for the evening news, it is ok to wear a t-shirt, shorts and runners just so long as you have a rain jacket handy to make you like like you could have just stepped straight out of the wetlands!

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From African forests to South American cities

While many of us were keeping our eyes on the developing outbreak of mosquito-borne Zika virus in South America towards the end of 2015, it wasn’t until February 2016 that the situation really grabbed the attention of the world’s media.

In late January, I published a piece at The Conversation titled “Does Zika virus pose a threat to Australia?” It prompted a little interest but it was the media conference coordinated by University of Sydney Media and Communications together with Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) that coincided with the announcement of the World Health Organization that the Zika virus outbreak was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

Together with colleagues from the University of Sydney’s Marie Bashir Institute of Infectious Disease and Biosecurity, I spoke at a media conference broadcast nationally on ABC News 24. There was a huge amount of media stories stemming from this media conference with over 500 individual articles identified across radio, tv, print and online. During the days and weeks following, I felt like I was spending more time at the ABC studios in Ultimo than I was in our lab! There were days when I spent hours on the phone doing radio interviews.

There were a couple of great longer form interviews that I really appreciated the opportunity to contribute to such as ABC Radio National’s Health Report and Rear Vision. There were also a couple of podcasts too, check out Science on Top and Flash Forward.

This flood of media requests also exposed me to a few more new experiences. There were live tv appearances on Sunrise, ABC News 24 and Sky News but probably one of the most interesting was my spot on Channel Ten’s The Project. It was interesting for a number of reasons.

Firstly, I was warned early on that one of the guests on the panel was comedian Jimmy Carr, a somewhat controversial figure notorious for jokes a little too close to bad taste. I’m not typically one to play the “wacky scientist” during interviews but what I was most cautious of was not being seen to be treating a very serious disease outbreak too lightly. I was determined to play the straight guy. In the end the interview turned ok but there were a couple of awkward moments that, luckily, ended up being edited out.

Secondly, simply doing the interview was unusual. It was a pre-recorded interview with me in a tiny room at the Channel Ten studio in Sydney and the panel in the Melbourne studio. I was sitting in front of a green-screen, staring down the camera with an earpiece blasting away in my ear. I have done live crosses before but they’re all been one-on-one interviews. This time it was with the panel and I found it incredibly difficult to get the feel for each of the panelists when they were asking questions. Missing that eye-to-eye contact was a disconcerting experience. Luckily, all turned out well in the end.

Lesson learned: Lots (I mean LOTS) learned while dealing with the interest in Zika virus! Probably another post in itself…but I would say that managing this volume of media wasn’t easy and it did eat up a lot of time (even though communicating public health messages is central to my “day job”) but this was important work.

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A morning with Dr Karl!

When it comes to science communicators in Australia, there are few with a higher profile than Dr Karl Kruszelnicki. We’d spoken on a number of occasions about mosquitoes but I’d never actually met him in person before. “Dr Karl” invited me to hang out for a morning recording interviews for ABC News 24, ABC Local Radio and also guest on his national “Science Talk” segment on Triple J’s Mornings Show with Zan Rowe.

The experience of a behind-the-scenes perspective on Karl’s hectic schedule and how he manages the frenetic pace of work at the ABC was an eye opener. Doing the hour long segment on Triple J was great, enlightening to get questions from a slice of the Australian community I don’t usually cross paths with when doing the usual community engagement. I good reminder of just how much anxiety there can be within the community when news of international disease outbreaks occur. Not surprising given the thousands of Australians travelling to South America each month….with more to come later this year when the Rio Olympic Games kick off!

You can listen to the segment here and you can also follow Dr Karl on Twitter.

Lesson learned: From a public health perspective, this is a great reminder that the concerns and anxieties around infectious disease can change depending on the sector of the community you’re dealing with. The core messages may remain the same but you’ll always need to consider your audience when fine tuning your public health messages.

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So, was all this worth it?

It was stressful. It was fun. It eroded much of my time that may have been spent in other ways but I see this as “doing my job” perhaps a little more than pure research scientists do. But how does all this convert into tangible metrics. How do you measure the reach and economics of all these media activities?

I’m fortunate to be supported by the University of Sydney media and communications team that helps out by providing some data on the metrics of my media activities each summer. What was all this time and effort worth?

Between November 2015 and Match 2016, I was quoted in over 160 media items. This adds up to a cumulative audience of around 8.9 million people, that is quite some reach! How much was it worth? Based on current advertising rates, about $1.6 million.

I’ve written before about how we can better value science and public health communication. Collecting these types of metrics can be useful for a range of purposes. Recently, I’ve been including media engagement as an “in kind” contribution to grant applications with valuation calculated on average media coverage that may be expected.

The lesson here is to take the time to record your media activities, not just so you have a list to demonstrate quantity but also so you can assess audience and value to your media activities. Work with your media and communications departments to see what extra information you can collect.

Got any other tips? Share them via Twitter!

 

 

 

 

 

Putting a value on science communication

For many scientists, communicating the ideas that underpin their areas of expertise to the public and policy makers is critical. Sharing the findings of research could make a difference to people’s lives, even if it is just to increase their appreciate of science and the world around them. But how do we value the communication of science by scientists?

Scientists often bemoan the lack of acknowledgment of their scientific communications and community engagement efforts. There is little doubt that these “outreach” activities receive far less “academic credit” than publication in high impact journals.

Writing for “popular science” outlets is often perceived to be a career negative. While some argue there needs to be capacity for the community engagement efforts of scientists to be acknowledged in the assessment of academic accomplishment, others argue against it. Regardless of your motivations, if you’re going to engage in science communication, it is best to make the most of your activities but even when your research goes vial, how can you put a value on this?

How can you value your science communications in a way that may be recognised for employment, promotion, grant applications etc?

repellentbandOne of my recent articles for The Conversation, why mosquitoes seem to bite some people more, went a little bit viral. Almost 1.3 million people clicked on that article. Would I swap it for an article in Nature (or any other scholarly publication with a high impact factor) that only 20 people read? Probably as it would make a far more valuable contribution to my career…but would it have the same potential to change people’s awareness and behaviour in avoiding mosquito bites? Probably not.

I’ve written before about the importance of social media in getting the public health messages informed by my research out to the public. A blog post I wrote about the shortcomings of mosquito repellent wrist bands in protecting people against mosquito bites is the most read post on my blog. Since first published, the article “Do mosquito repellent wrist bands work?” has been read by around 47,000 people. The original paper, published in a journal without an impact factor, may have been read by only dozens of people if I hadn’t written about it on my blog.

repellents2

I’m increasingly asked to provide evidence of “engagement” or “translation” activities associated with my research. This is particularly the case for my activities with Centre for infectious Disease and Microbiology Public Health where translating research for improved public health outcomes is a key objective. Those outcomes have generally been focused on providing informed guidance to local authorities on infectious disease surveillance, diagnosis and treatment.

What about community engagement?

I wanted to share how I’ve been trying to value my science communication activities in recent years. My general approach to this is to document as much detail as possible about individual activities, try to quantify the reach of activities (as much as possible) and to try to use my experience with these activities into what could be best described as my “core” activities.

In the same way you may incorporate a new laboratory technique or statistical analysis into your research, why not incorporate your science communication activities similarly?

Webb_NineNews_March2015

Every summer I find myself standing in the mangroves talking to a camera (while being bitten by mosquitoes)

Media activities

In the summer past, I’ve been interviewed about 50 times on research findings, disease outbreaks and topical issues associated with mosquitoes and mosquito-borne disease. This level of activity clearly holds the potential to engage the wider community with important public health messages as well as (hopefully) improve their understanding of local scientists and their research.

While keeping a track of the interviews and their details (date, topic, journalist, outlet etc) is handy, it is also possible to go beyond that to record audience reach and assign a relative value. This is where you’ll need the help of your institute’s media and communications unit. They should be able to obtain reports from media monitoring organisations that keep track of details (interview summary points and duration, audience size, estimated value) associated with media activities.

For example, on 16 January 2015 I did a live cross to Channel 7’s Sunrise program. The interview ran for just over 3 minutes, issues about mosquito-borne disease risk and personal protection measures were covered, it had an estimated audience of over 500,000 and was valued at around $200,000.

Over the course of a year (or perhaps a research project), it is possible to assign both a financial and engagement value? For me, the media activities over the 2014-2015 summer had an estimate audience of around 8 million and value of over $600,000. This extra level of detail adds so much extra weight to the value of science communications activities.

mosquitobites_magazines

Mosquito Bites is the bulletin of the Mosquito Control Association of Australia. Distributed to members throughout Australia and many other countries, it provides information on the operational aspects of mosquito and mosquito-borne disease management.

Popular science writing

I regularly contribute articles to non-scholarly publications, these include newsletters, bulletins and magazines produced by local community groups, industry bodies and scientific associations. As well as recording the specific details about each article, it is also possible to record circulation as a measure of engagement.

If you need to add a financial value to these articles, why not consider what the current rates are for freelance journalists? They seem to be around $0.40-1.00 per word, that makes any (non-scholarly journal) writing associated with research projects as an “in kind” contribution valued at around $500-600? Planning on writing an article associated with an upcoming research project, why not include this extra value as an “in kind” contribution?

I regularly write for The Conversation. The website provides excellent data on the readership of individual articles (including with respect to other contributors from your institution) in addition to republication and social network sharing. Most of my articles receive around 6,000-8,000 reads but many have also reached around 20,000. Again, this is typically substantially greater exposure than received by my articles in scholarly journals. Recording this additional information would help make a handy argument that non-academic writing holds value, especially when arguing about research translation.

Output from @mozziebites Twitter Analytics for February 2015

Output from @mozziebites Twitter Analytics for February 2015 showing data on impressions and engagement with my Tweets during the month.

Social media activity

Got a Twitter account or Facebook page? It is obviously great to keep track of your follower numbers, retweets, likes and shares of tweets and posts. It is a way to demonstrate engagement with the community. I started tracking my activity on Twitter early on. I was partly interested in whether people would engage with tweets about mozzies but I also wanted to demonstrate to my “bosses” that using social media for “work purposes” had some benefits in line with the public health objectives of my research activities. There was also a very nice paper published in 2012 that provided a framework for assessing the engagement of health authorities with social media and I wanted to gather similar data.

For Twitter users, you can access data on your own account via Twitter Analytics. It provides plenty of useful information, especially engagements (i.e. total number of times a user interacted with a Tweet, including retweets, replies, follows, favorites, links, cards, hashtags, embedded media, username, profile photo, or Tweet expansion), impressions (i.e. times a user is served a Tweet in timeline or search results) and link clicks (i.e. clicks on a URL in the Tweet). This kind of data can help demonstrate the extent to which the online community is interacting with your own social media activity.

It will also help if you engage with your institution on social media. Help promote their activities and those of your colleagues and collaborators. In turn they’ll help raise your profile too.

ABCOpenDay_ParramattaPark_WebbGiggle

Speaking at public events provides opportunities to meet a wide cross section of the community….even celebrities such as Jimmy Giggle at the ABC community event at Parramatta Park, April 2014.

Community presentations

Every year i speak at a range of community events. In the past year or so I’ve spoken at such diverse events as Sydney Olympic Park Authority’s Life in the Park, Australian Skeptics in the Pub, Cumberland Birds Observer’s Cub meeting, Oatley Flora and Fauna Conservation Society meeting and Pint of Science. This provides an opportunity to speak to a wide cross section of the community but is also an opportunity to document experience in communicating to different audiences.

As well as keeping track of these speaking engagements (date, title, location, hosting organisation), I also try to record the number of attendees and most of the time I make a note of questions asked. This, again, is a way to document engagement/translation of research. It can also form a foundation for how you may shape research, it has particularly been the case for me reviewing the way we share public health information relating to the promotion of insect repellent use.

Communications and publications

Finally, think about ways you can parlay your experience with science communication into output that’s recognised by your organisation or institute. Why not write a perspectives piece, commentary or letter to the editor? I’m regularly seeing articles popping up in peer reviewed journals explaining the benefits of using social media, why not target a journal within your field that may not have covered the topic. You only need to see the metrics on this paper, ‘An Introduction to Social Media for Scientists‘, to realise that there is plenty of interest and having an extra journal article under your belt won’t hurt either.

Similarly, if you’re being asked to speak at conferences and workshops on your use of social media and/or science communication strategies, make sure you’re recording all those details too.

To conclude, there may not (yet) be a magic number to assign to your science communications activity in the same way impact factors and altmetrics help measure the success of traditional academic output. However, that doesn’t mean you cannot record a bunch of “metrics” associated with science communications, both online and off, that will hopefully better place you for that next job offer or promotion.

What do you think? How do you document your scientific communications activities? Join the conversation on Twitter.