An eight-year-old girl has co-authored a paper in the peer-reviewed journal Annals of the Entomological Society of America, making her possibly the youngest scientific author in history. Sophia Spencer's story, and her collaboration with the University of Guelph's Morgan Jackson, is a tale of the positive role social media can play and the inspiration a lot of us could use right now.
Spencer is fascinated by insects, but when, aged seven, she started at a new school her classmates teased her about her love of bugs. Spencer's mother Nicole was worried her daughter would lose her passion, and reached out to the Entomological Society of Canada, hoping contact with a professional would maintain Spencer's enthusiasm.
The society emailed an anonymized version of the message to its 350 members and sounded the rallying call on Twitter.
Scientist after scientist replied, using photos of their beloved insects, videos, paintings they did as children, open letters, and pretty much anything else they could think of to make sure Spencer's fire did not go out.
Jackson, a graduate student in charge of the Society's social media accounts, tweeted:
Jackson's specialty is stilt-legged flies, but he decided to apply the same skills he uses studying insect behavior to look at the effects of the social media campaign.
Jackson documented the success of #BugsR4Girls using typical numerical methods, noting 1,094 tweets using the hashtag in four months and tracking the growth, comparing the account's engagement before and after the hashtag's launch and the number of scientists contributing.
In addition, he decided to get Spencer's own voice on the experience. In the course of a long statement she wrote:
“It felt good to have so many people support me, and it was cool to see other girls and grown-ups studying bugs. It made me feel like I could do it too, and I definitely, definitely, definitely want to study bugs when I grow up, probably grasshoppers.... My mom says I'm back to being my funny old self with my confidence after seeing all the girls who like bugs. And now I have a microscope somebody sent to me, and when I bring it to school, the kids in my school, whenever they find a bug they come and tell me and say “Sophia, Sophia, we found a bug!”
The contribution was large enough to make her junior author. The record for youngest scientific authors was previously held by a class, some also just eight, who published in Biology Letters.
Jackson and Spencer's work attracted an opinion piece in the same journal, and gained the highest score ever achieved in that publication on a ranking of attention from mainstream popular science and social media – something we hope we just sent a little higher.