What’s your brand?

Last Monday, I chaired a panel titled “Branding yourself – How creating a brand for yourself can increase your visibility, improve your communication skills, and help you navigate social media” at the Marie Curie Alumni Association Annual Conference. You can watch the full session here, where you can see the lively with panelists Martijn Peters, Nehama Lewis and Matt Murtha. However, I wanted to take the opportunity of having a blog to outline some thoughts I had before, during and after said session. Let’s call this An Incomplete Guide to Branding Yourself  – to be read with a level of skepticism because I am not an expert in this field whatsoever. Also, I rarely take myself seriously, and neither should you.

Personal brand?

If that would actually be my personal brand, the options are numerous. I’m notoriously clumsy and known to trip over nothing on a regular basis. I once tried kicking a football with both feet simultaneously, landed on the ball and fell backward, resulting in a broken arm. I once fell flat on my face while rushing to catch a bus I didn’t really need to catch. More recently (aka, last Tuesday) I sat in front of a bench instead of on it. But that said, I would prefer clumsy not to be my personal brand.

Though – come to think of it – I often use “tall, clumsy and nerdy – not necessarily in that order” when asked for a bio…

Let’s take a few steps back: what is a brand?

Basically, in a marketing context, a brand is what the customer/user/… thinks of a product or a company. It’s everything that is associated with that product (or company). This can mean a recognizable logo or slogan, but also an image of being a “green” company, or a “family friendly” company, or a “quirky” company. Remember Wendy’s witty responses on twitter? That’s all part of the branding.

Which brings me to the following point: What do people typically associate with “science”? A simple google image search doesn’t really look too promising:

58% old white guy with messy hair, 24% younger white dudes, 12% white ladies and 6% Dexter.
(percentages liberally rounded up)

“We need to change how the public thinks of science and scientists. We need to change the first thing people think of when they think of science. And the best way to do it? Be the brand.” *

Fair enough, but I how do I “be the brand”?

Similar to a “brand”, a “personal brand” is everything that other people might associate with you. Some people have very clear personal brands, just think of famous people like Oprah, or Bill Nye (I hear you automatically thinking: The Science Guy). But you don’t have to become famous to create a personal brand, and becoming famous should not be the goal of creating a personal brand. Creating a personal brand is useful for a number of reasons:

  • Thinking about how you want to brand yourself can help you figure out what makes you unique. You can create a vision of how you want people to perceive you and what your ambitions are in terms of career, or in terms of life in general for that matter. And for personal development, having a goal is always useful,
  • Creating a more visible internet presence helps your visibility. Having a personal brand (or something people “remember you by”) is incredibly useful for networking and landing your dream job.
  • As I said before, you can help market science (or STEM, or whatever field you are in). A powerful way to combat stereotypes is to show the rest of the world how diverse the people in your field are, and you can play your part by being the brand for your field.

With regards to actually creating a personal brand, internet presence and social media are probably the most powerful tools, whether you like it or not. My main tip is to check what turns up on the first page of google when you type in your name. Are you happy with what shows up? If not, use your internet superpowers to change your google presence (or more realistically, clean up Google search results for your name).

If you are okay with things like Twitter or Instagram or blogging, that’s a powerful method to control your brand, i.e. how you are perceived by people that might be looking for you on the interwebs. A general rule for social media is to stay authentic. It’s easy to spot people pretending to be something they’re not. That said, it’s okay to adhere a little bit to the “Fake it till you make it rule” in the sense that you can be who you aspire to be. For example, I’m not a professional science communicator, but it’s what I aspire to be. So I use it on social media, and on my business cards, etc.

Okay, this introduction was very incomplete

— I hear you thinking. And you’d be right. I highly recommend you go check out the video of the panel discussion because it was a very lively – and mildly entertaining – session (if I may say so myself) and while we might not have come up with absolute answers, we discussed topics such as authenticity, time management, and science communication in general.

Look at me professionally being professional and all.

And to quote a slogan from a famous brand: Just do it!
(also typically associated with Shia LaBeouf, for other reasons)


* Background about branding and quote from https://www.forbes.com/sites/paulmsutter/2019/02/10/turning-science-into-a-brand-is-a-good-thing

An example of how to create your personal brand (others available upon Google search, the internet is a marvelous place, people!): https://www.quicksprout.com/the-complete-guide-to-building-your-personal-brand/

The devil’s in the details

One of the “hallmarks” of cancer is the ability of cancer cells to spread to other parts of the body, settle themselves in this new environment and give rise to a new tumor. This process of spreading is known as metastasis and is something that typically aggressive cancers are known to do. In almost all cancers, cells can only spread within one organism. Almost all. There are a few – so far 4 that we know of – types of cancer that can spread to another body. In other words, there are types of cancer that are contagious, or transmissible, and that’s kind of creepy.

A transmissible cancer is a cancer where the cells themselves can spread to another organism and cause tumor growth in that organism. This is not the case for virus-born cancer. For example, in the Human Pappiloma Virus (HPV) is a virus that can be sexually transmitted and some types of the virus can cause a whole range of different cancers.  In other words, the virus is transmitted and the virus gives rise to cancer development.

But in the case of transmissible cancers, it is the cancer cells that spread to another organism. Most types of transmissible cancers are sexually transmitted; these types are found in snails and dogs. There is one type of transmissible cancer that is a bit of the odd one out: devil facial tumor disease or DFTD. Sounds kind of satanic, no?

DFTD is a very aggressive non-viral transmissible cancer that affects Tasmanian devils, you know, that Looney Tunes character that creates little tornadoes when it moves…

Why you so aggressive, Taz?

Okay, not really.

DFTD is a mouth cancer that looks really bad (don’t google it, or do, whatever, I’m not your boss) and is spread because Taz devils bite each other a lot. I guess, it kind of is an STI because they also bite each other during mating.

And because Taz devils are pretty isolated (they all live on the one island), and the cancer is very aggressive (spreads easily and is very lethal), and Taz devils are pretty aggressive animals (they bite each other a lot), it is a bit of a problem. DFTD has been observed since 1996 and has now spread to most parts of the island. It is feared that DFTD may cause the extinction of Taz devils.

Last year, I went to a talk by Elizabeth Murchison, who studies transmissible cancers, and it turns out that DFTD is actually quite interesting. In her talk, she explained that her team used genome reconstruction to track the origin and evolution of DFTD, and this led to the discovery that there are two independent types of DFTD (if I remember correctly, one of the cancers originated in a female Tax devil while the other originated in a male and that’s how they knew it had to be two separate types of DFTD).

Why would I care? Well, first of all, it is a unique situation to have a transmissible cancer that is isolated to one island, which – scientifically – is a unique opportunity to study how cancer evolves and spreads. Moreover, it is pretty strange that there are two types of a rare cancer (transmissible cancers are very uncommon) that have originated within one species. The two types of cancer started in similar tissue types, and have similar mutation patterns, which implies that Taz devils may be particularly susceptible to transmissible cancers.

But then the question is: why now? Taz devils have been around for ages, why have they now, within what seems to be only decades, developed two different diseases that are very similar to each other and that may lead to their extinction? Is it due to human influence, or perhaps climate change*? Has this happened to other species before, but we just didn’t know because we weren’t around or we didn’t know about cancers yet?

And, can we save the Taz devil? There are efforts to set up Taz devil sanctuaries on smaller islands off the coast of Tasmania to avoid these cancers spreading to the whole population. But if this type of cancer can spontaneously originate, how do we avoid this happening a third time?

Unfortunately, I haven’t made it to Tasmania yet (did I mention I traveled to the other side of the world recently), but I did see a Taz devil in the zoo. Can we save Taz, so he may roam around and make weird tornado thingies?

Tazzie spotted in Taronga Zoo (Sydney)… Okay, they’re kind of cute in a giant rodent-looking type of way.

* Okay, technically speaking that means that it is still indirectly due to human influence.

Not just your usual conference (100 years, Part VIII)

Spotted in the Bell Pettigrew Museum of Natural History (St. Andrews)

Last weekend, I attended the Centenary conference commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the publication of On Growth And Form by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. You might have heard me mention this book and its centenary at some point?

It was not just your usual conference. While most conferences centre around a certain field or topic, this one explored the influence of D’Arcy and his book on many different fields It was the most interesting mix of people and topics at any meeting I’ve been at, it succeeded in bringing scientists, mathematicians, computer scientists, historians, artists, architects, musicians and knitters in the same room.

Also, the sessions were not organised topically, but pretty much random, which meant that even if you were just interested in a few talks (on paper), you ended up hearing the wide variety of topics that have something to do with D’Arcy. Personally, I thought this was a very clever choice of the organisers (kudos to them), and I enjoyed hearing about art, architecture, history, and yes, knitting, instead of boring ol’ science for a change.


I also feel like I made some type of personal achievement. I was accepted to give a talk on the Physics of Cancer, which you might remember as the topic of my two FameLab contributions. For each of these, I had written a little song. So, in a crazy phase of over-confidence, I decided to incorporate these songs into my talk. And, why not, I also incorporated Star Wars references, weird cartoon cell drawings and pretty dodgy doodles I had drawn myself.

The response was amazing. I’ve given talks at conferences before but never have I received such positive feedback. Not only because they found the songs entertaining (I can assure you no-one fell asleep during my presentation) but I was also complimented on the clarity and accessibility of my talk (the very mixed audience, remember) and my optimistic approach to a “heavy” topic. If possible, I will from now on take this approach for every talk.


Finally, I have a new favourite D’Arcy quote (it’s quite convenient to have three days full of inspirational quotes to muse about):

“(…) things are interesting only in so far as they relate to themselves to other things; only then you can put two and two together and tell stories about them.”

Closely followed by this one, actually:

“Facts are pointless unless they illustrate greater principles.”

(The comics snippets and the second quote are from the graphic novel “Transformations“.)