Daniella Rabaiotti: Fitting Flatulence Facts Into a PhD

Image Credit: Daniella Rabaiotti, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

A PhD can be an incredibly stressful experience for a young scientist. Time runs low, stress levels run high. Just yesterday, Nature released an article that claimed the situation could be worsening, with more than a third of PhD students surveyed globally having sought help for mental health problems related to their PhD.

Furthermore, universities often place pressure on young career researchers to publish as many journal articles as possible, despite the fact that a large number of us don’t go on into academic careers. This can often leave PhD students with little time to develop skills outside of scientific writing.

Yet many students, through a combination of good time management, a bit of luck and a lot of hard work, manage to branch out and achieve a lot more than just journal publications.

Daniella Rabaiotti was one such PhD. Her third book, Believe it or Snot (which you can find at this link), came out last month, the third in a trilogy of collaborations with fellow former PhD student Nick Caruso. The first of the three titles, Does It Fart, which deals with the flatulent side of animal life, came about as a result of a Twitter hashtag, and saw Dani appear on podcast, TV and radio, and even consulted for a kid’s TV show. All this while completing her PhD on the endangered African wild dog.

Last month I spoke to Dani about her path into writing, making connections with journalists, and managing such heavy involvement with science communication while dealing with the regular hassles of being a PhD student.

Sam Perrin (SP): Your newest book, Believe it or Snot, came out last month. How has the response been?

Dr. Daniella Rabaiotti, Researcher and Author, Zoological Society of London (DR): People seem to be really enjoying it. Does it Fart in particular is quite mammal heavy, and a lot of people seem to like the fact that Believe it or Snot has more invertebrates and a lot of more weird and slimy animals.

SP: What was the target audience you had in mind when you started writing these?

Daniella and Nick's first book, Does It Fart, started with a Twitter hashtag that journalists and publishers on Twitter quickly picked up on (Image Credit: Daniella Rabaiotti, CC BY 2.0)

Daniella and Nick’s first book, Does It Fart, started with a Twitter hashtag that journalists and publishers on Twitter quickly picked up on (Image Credit: Daniella Rabaiotti, CC BY 2.0)

DR: It was quite broad. When we wrote them originally we had adults in mind but older kids as well, just anyone that kind of appreciates a bit of a gross book. It was a bit of a Christmas stocking filler I guess. They work out quite well as a coffee table book or the kind of book you put in the bathroom to have a bit of a chuckle at. We’ve had some real spikes in sales around things like Father’s Day. But they’ve gone down an absolute storm with older kids. So it’s a mixed audience for sure.

SP: You’ve said before that a lot of what helped was the connections with journalists. How did those connections come about?

DR: So Does it Fart, the first book, actually came through a twitter hashtag. It was originally a bit of an in joke among pet owners and scientists that work on animals. A lot of people were submitting their pets or species and whether they farted or not to a spreadsheet that Nick and I created. We’re scientists, we love a good spreadsheet, and we thought people could refer to it and it would be a bit of fun.

I think at that point I had 1,000 followers on Twitter. And in among those followers there were a few journalists who had been following me for my animal related content, or that I’d spoken to about fieldwork stories in the past. There’s a lot of journalists on Twitter and it’s quite a good way for them to pick up stories. So if you’re on Twitter it means that they’re more likely to see what you’re talking about basically. The spreadsheet and the hashtag and all that started on Twitter, and it meant that it came to the attention of journalists who were already looking for stories on science, animals, funny stories.

SP: You and your co-author Nick Caruso wrote this book with a lot of back and forth over Skype, but never meeting in person?

DR: And we’ve still never met! Nick’s based in the US, I’m based in the UK. I’ve made it to the US but to totally the wrong part so we’ve never crossed paths. There was a lot of back and forth, we’d Skype regularly, we still talk frequently all the time. It’s weird working with someone so closely and not having met them, but I think we make a really good team actually, it’s been pretty seamless working together.

SP: That collaborative back and forth is quite similar to what you would get on a lot of scientific papers, but obviously there must be major differences. What were the most difficult to adapt to?

DR: Being really concise. We have to be really concise with the books because we have to stick to below 200 words per animal. You’re talking about animals that people might not be familiar with. They might not know what they look like or how they behave, and you’re trying to get all that information into 200 words. As well of course as the focal bits of the book, how slimy they are, or do they fart. So that’s definitely more challenging. Sometimes we don’t feel like we get that much space in scientific papers, but it’s a lot when you compare it to what we have to fit all that information into in the books.

I’d also say a really positive difference is the style of writing which is much more relaxed, which I find much nicer. It has actually helped improve my scientific writing, it means I’m much more straightforward. When I’m writing a paper now I try and do it in a way that will be understandable to someone who doesn’t have a scientific background.

SP: Having compressed such complicated topics into such a small space, did you get any negative reactions at people annoyed by that oversimplification?

DR: Actually, more of the feedback we got was along the lines of “I didn’t buy this book to learn!”. I don’t mind, I quite like it when we hear that there’s too much science in our books! That’s what the whole joke was – scientists talking about gross themes and snail slime. There are plenty of jokes in there, but there is a lot of actual information that hopefully anyone that reads it will learn from. I always learn something new when I’m writing them.

SP: As a PhD student, what was your supervisor’s reaction when you came to them and told them you were going to write a book on animals that fart?

DR: I think because of the media build-up before, the subject matter had settled in her mind by that point. I had even been on TV to talk about it. I think she was more bemused at first when the media started to talk about it, but when we came to the book we were all settled in, I was all about farts at that stage. She was fantastic, she was really supportive, she thought it was a great idea. My supervisor’s always been really encouraging about getting experiences outside academia.

I was actually on placement when I ended up writing the book. I was on a 9-5 science policy placement, and then I had my weekends to spend on the book. And that was quite nice really, to just have a real focus on science communication in two very different spheres.

SP: Onus on PhDs is often all about publishing, which often detracts from stuff like this. Should that focus shift?

DR: It’s really difficult, because at the end of the day most PhD students aren’t going to go into academia. So do you really want to be focused on publishing your work really if you’re not going to academia? It’s not really going to help your job prospects. Some NGOs and other research jobs will look for publications, in which case it’s a good idea. But it really depends on what you want to go into.

At the moment the focus is gearing PhD students up to get an academic job. Mostly people are going to be looking at your publication record when they’re looking for post-docs, that’s kind of an undeniable fact. Whether that publication record is necessarily the most indicative of who will be the best at doing that post-doc is another question. But we are super hung up on it. I think it’s good to get publications during your PhD, but you have to weigh up what you want to do afterwards. Because if you don’t want an academic job then getting these other skills I think is really important. I was super aware when I started that most people don’t end up in academia and that I was going to get a non-academic job afterwards. So it depends on the person. You’ve just got to work towards what plays to your strengths and what you enjoy doing.

Also, a lot of publications rely on luck, and people have to accept that. My first publication took 3 years, it was really slow going, so sometimes you can be unlucky and end up with much lower publication records, through no fault of your own. Which is again, why I think it’s really helpful to gain other skills just in case you have a bad time with reviewers or journals taking a long time.

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Daniella’s public outreach has included several appearance on TV, where she’s discussed her books, as well as likely impacts of climate change on biodiversity (Image Credit: Daniella Rabaiotti, CC BY 2.0)

SP: You have now written 3 books, as well as having written articles for the BBC and The Verge, appeared on various forms of media and consulted for a kid’s TV show. How did you fit all of that into a PhD?

DR: I think time management was really key. I’m really lucky that I have a supervisor that’s really happy for me to basically structure my PhD most of the time as a 9 to 5 unless I had a deadline coming up. So I would often work on that sort of thing on the weekends or in the evening if I felt like it. As well as that, I did quite a modelling heavy PhD, so sometimes I’d be setting stuff up and it would take a week to run. There was lots of dead time, so I would do stuff then, particularly with Twitter. Often I would find even if I was just making some graphs, if they’re quite complex they would take 2-5 minutes to run, so I’d try to squeeze in microwork into those periods as well.

Looking back, when I finished I’m not really sure how I fit it all in. But I would say that the most important thing is that I maintained the whole way through was I always had at least one full day off from all of it a week. And made sure that I left enough time to sleep at least 6 or 7 hours.

SP: Impostor syndrome is a huge thing among PhDs. Did you at any get that feeling of ‘why am I the one doing this, there’s so many other people out there’, and how did you move past it?

DR: I think I’m a great believer that sometimes you’re just lucky and you’ve got to appreciate that luck when it comes your way. It wasn’t entirely down to luck, both Nick and I had built up audiences and contacts online and there was work that went into it. And I think we wrote a really good book, I’m really proud of all the books we’ve written. We came up with all those ideas, we had that expertise from being zoologists to write them. But obviously there are a lot of other people who are also on Twitter and have a lot of knowledge of animals. And you can look at it like “why are we doing this”, but you’ve got to take luck where you can get it.

I don’t really get impostor syndrome so much about it. I do fret sometimes about whether the next book will do well. But I think any author would get that. I think I just learned to appreciate how lucky we’ve been and that it’s been amazing, I’ve really enjoyed every second of it. I’ve made sure to focus on that rather than getting too hung up on whether we were good enough to do it. Obviously we were, because the books did really well.

SP: Did you come into the PhD looking to go into science communication, or was it something you started to enjoy along the way?

DR: I always was looking at a science communication route. Originally I wanted to go into conservation policy. However the policy landscape in the UK has changed beyond belief which meant that I ended up pulling back from that quite a bit. So I ended up taking quite a different science communication route, which is always what led me to the books in many ways. I’ve always enjoyed talking about science, I’m really passionate about science policy. But I also just really enjoy discussing it, I love animals, I get mega overenthusiastic about it, I found social media was a really great way of sharing that with people. And the book were a great way to share how much enjoyment I get out of the natural world and how ridiculous it is. So yeah, I think it was probably a segue over from the policy side of things. It’s all science communication at the end of the day. Yeah there’s different strategies and you have different audiences, but all those skills do help out across the board.

SP: Does it ever get annoying that your work with an endangered species like African wild dogs gets less attention than a book about animal flatulence?

DR: No. Not that I want to knock anyone’s science, but a lot of it is really dry. Communication between scientists is almost designed to be dry. I do think my scientific research is really important and really interesting, but would I rather read a book about farts or a scientific paper? I mean it’s probably going to be the book about farts.

I’m with everyone else on this. In the same way that I could post a picture and caption it “oh my goodness look at this kookaburra I just saw”, or I could post a graph from my paper. Way less people are going to share the graph. A lot of people who actually want to read and learn about the natural world, they either want to see really nice imagery, or they want to hear heartwarming stories, and they want it to be entertaining. It is quite hard, particularly in conservation, to make these stories entertaining, as they’re often pretty miserable. So I can empathize thoroughly with the fact that way more people want to read a book about animal farts. We just try to get some conservation messaging in there in a light-hearted fashion as well, so hopefully people learn a bit about cows and climate change or about biodiversity loss along the way.

Daniella and Nick’s third book, Believe It Or Snot, can be bought at this link from the Hachette Book Group. You can read more about Daniella at her website, linked here.

Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. You can read more about his work and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, or see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here.

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