Why I Started a SciComm Instagram as a PhD Student

By Chandler McElrath, Founder of The G-Protein Coupled Researcher

A #SciComm Instagram can be a great way to share the ups and downs of one’s science PhD program and seek support and comeraderie on those inevitable days that experiments don’t work.

Mix a bunch of proteins together. Load onto a gel. Repeat. That’s the best way I can summarize my day-to-day life as a biochemistry PhD student at the Medical College of Wisconsin. I share my daily struggles on Instagram as @gproteincoupledresearcher. Follow me there if you want to watch me pipette endlessly and navigate the mountains and valleys of graduate school – it’ll be great to have you along for the ride. Keep reading to learn more about my SciComm Instagram and why I created it.

Source: The G-Protein Coupled Researcher

Why I Started @GProteinCoupledResearcher

Communicating science in an accessible way is my passion. Science topics can be intimidating, especially with the alphabet soup of all the acronyms and words that are so long that spelling them correctly is a task on its own. I firmly believe that science is for everyone. Science doesn’t have to be scary, and everyone is capable of understanding things about the millions of cells that make up their body. 

The complexity of science just adds to the challenge of communicating it. My dissertation work focuses on how different proteins interact with each other and lead to migration and spread of cancer cells: a phenomenon known as metastasis. I do all in vitro work for my research, meaning that I only use purified proteins or cultured cells rather than animals for my experiments.

I am getting my PhD with the end goal of being a college professor. One of the main aspects of being a professor is teaching, but in the summer of 2020, in a COVID-ridden world with no vaccine yet available, I had few opportunities to gain interactive teaching experience. Over the past two years, my Instagram account, @gproteincoupledresearcher, has allowed me to connect virtually with thousands of people around the world, including fellow graduate students, scientists, science communicators, and others. I share the ups and downs of being in a science PhD program – long hours, seemingly endless failure, and juggling multiple work and life demands. I’ve been lucky to connect with many like-minded people and, in this blog, I talk about the origins of my Instagram and what I post about.

I asked a close friend and fellow biomedical sciences graduate student to help me come up with a “punny” handle for a science Instagram account about doing cancer reseach involving G-protein coupled receptors, and @gproteincoupledresearcher was born. Communicating about science and its many challenges on Instagram helped me maintain my sense of purpose and overall mental health during this time of unprecedented isolation. 

My intentions for this account never included becoming an influencer, and I still hesitate to call myself that. So, I was genuinely shocked when suddenly hundreds, then thousands, of people cared about my experiments and daily life as a biochemistry PhD student. Some of these followers have become dear friends as we discussed the ups and downs of graduate school during a pandemic.

Making these connections were critical in maintaining my own mental health, which drove me to share aspects of my mental health journey on the account. I was met with overwhelming support. Graduate students from all over the world related to my brutally honest content about toxicity in academia and accessing mental health resources while trying to keep up with the demands of a PhD program. This is when I realized I had established my niche on Instagram. People follow me to see the realities, both good and bad, of being a biomedical PhD student. 

Source: The G-Protein Coupled Researcher

What I Post

On Instagram Stories, I talk about my day-to-day life, answer followers’ questions about grad school, and engage people on biochemistry education. I also post both photo posts and short form video content for my static Instagram content.

Day-to-Day Life

On Instagram Stories, I share my to-do list of the lab tasks, classes and/or meetings I need to complete on a given day. This helps my followers get an idea of the day-to-day workload that I take on. I also often share images of the experiments in process throughout the day. 

Question and Answer (Q&A) Sessions

There were many things about graduate school, like grant writing and the pressure to publish, that I really had no concept of prior to being thrown into the depths of it myself. I enjoy being a resource for current and prospective graduate students, so I hold weekly Q&A sessions on my Instagram story to interact with my followers. Using the question box feature on Instagram Stories, anyone can type something to me, and I can answer with a story post for all followers to see. I am commonly asked about strategies to avoid burnout, experiment troubleshooting, study tips, and graduate school applications.

Biochemistry Quizzes

I also use the quiz feature in Instagram Stories to interact directly with my followers by creating small biochemistry quizzes. These will typically be five to 10 questions long, with one story post per question. I use the quiz function to make multiple choice questions about biochemistry topics and techniques that I use frequently. 

Followers seem to enjoy the interactive content, and I consider writing quiz questions to be great practice for my future career as a science professor. I find these informal quizzes to be the most effective way for me to integrate educational content into my page, as many people aren’t looking for academic subject matter when scrolling social media. 

Short Video Content (Reels)

Short, witty video clips have become a popular way to consume social media content in recent years, and lengthy blog posts with an image are not nearly as effective at capturing followers’ attention or being prioritized in the algorithm as they once were. Within a year of creating my Instagram account, I noticed that other SciComm pages were growing exponentially by creating reels regularly. 

Inspired by fellow Instagram SciCommers like Denny Chin (@denny.the.scientist) and Chloe Kirk (@chloe.the.scientist), I started making short videos to share on Instagram Reels. I might poke fun at daily nuances of lab life or share timelapse videos of me working at the lab bench. My page now grows consistently because I post reels on a regular basis.

My Posting Schedule

Currently, I try to create and post one to two reels per week. I also post on my Instagram Stories daily.

I still can’t believe that over 6,000 people read my content. I’ve never considered myself a “cool kid,” much less an influencer. I am humbled and so grateful for the support I receive from the SciComm community and how much professional development I continue to gain from running my Instagram page.

By the way, check out the collab reel I did with Sheeva from Fancy Comma about normalizing failure in science!

About Chandler McElrath

Chandler is a PhD student in biochemistry at the Medical College of Wisconsin. She graduated from Carroll University in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, and she is passionate about communicating science in a digestible and accessible way. She founded G-Protein Coupled Researcher, an Instagram where she talks about the challenges of science benchwork and the academic life. Follow the G-Protein Coupled Researcher at @gproteincoupledresearcher on Instagram.


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