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Science With a Side of Fun

The women of Dear Pandemic bring facts and humor to fight misinformation on social media.

Toilet plumes. When the concept of fecal and urinary droplets launching into the air via a commode flush made headlines in April in connection with possible COVID-19 spread, you could almost hear the world’s bewilderment. Really? This now? Also: Ewwwwww.

The health experts going by the collective name Dear Pandemic on social media might have known that posting a Q&A on the topic would garner high engagement.

“It is just kind of gross, but people thought it was funny,” says Shoshanna Aronowitz, PhD, FNP-BC, GR’19, a postdoctoral fellow at Penn and part of the team behind Dear Pandemic. (Bottom line: Close the lid before you flush. Wash your hands.)

The project started after founding member Malia Jones, PhD, MPH, a social epidemiologist, wrote a letter about COVID-19 to friends and family that went viral. Initially, Jones and Alison Buttenheim, PhD, MBA, (the Patricia Bleznak Silverstein and the Howard A. Silverstein Term Endowed Professor in Global Women’s Health at Penn Nursing), who were friends from grad school, started collaborating on accessible, evidence-based tips and explainers about the virus for social media.

They launched on Instagram first, in mid-March, soon created a Facebook page, and then signed onto Twitter on April 1. A YouTube channel followed. Realizing how time-consuming the effort would be, they recruited volunteers. The group—10 people and counting—got a nickname, Those Nerdy Girls, when an early follower declared an intention to listen to “those nerdy girls for the rest of the pandemic.”

In posts, interviews, and videos ever since, they’ve streamlined CDC messaging and “translated” emerging research for general public consumption. With over 40,000 followers across the four channels, they educate, joke, and, yes, talk about wiping down groceries, in this life amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Going Viral

The trip from academic journal world to the outer space of influencers, likes, and retweets is heady. “In academia, we were joking, if we publish a paper, maybe 20 people read the abstract and two people read the whole paper. Now, if Ashley writes a post, it’s very likely that at least 7,000 to 9,000 people will read it, and the reach can go to 50K or 80K for some of our viral posts,” says Buttenheim. “Ashley” is Dear Pandemic team member Ashley Ritter, PhD, CRNP, Nu’07, GNu’10, a postdoctoral fellow at Penn.

They haven’t completely avoided the toxicity that brews on social media, but, says Nerdy Girl Aparna Kumar, PhD, CRNP, Nu’10, GNu’16, “What I’ve found overall is that I see people I know sharing information, loving it.” The fact that they avoid politics, embrace humor, and don’t shy away from showing their humanity likely helps.

“[We aim to] communicate guidance to people in a way they’re likely to follow it or at least try to follow.”

In Kumar’s kid-friendly video about mask wearing, she let loose a fake sneeze that sends tiny colorful balls, which represent the virus, flying toward the camera. She used “glitter glue, glitter, and even more glitter” for a quick hand-washing lesson. (See below for the post about farts!)

They cover tips for staying safe while protesting racial injustice, maternal mental health, how racism impacts health outcomes, and death statistics, too. But thanks to the thoughtfulness that goes into creating a well-researched, balanced mix of content every week, Dear Pandemic manages to be a comforting antidote for doomscrolling.

“We recently made this Dr. Seuss poem video. We had so much fun laughing about that,” says Kumar, who adds that all of the women are extremely funny. “On our back channels, we’re laughing about ‘how many different ways can we message, yes, wear a mask.’”

Trust the Experts

The Dear Pandemic team relies on science and their own diverse expertise—in mental health, substance use, nursing homes, primary care, vaccine acceptance, and more—as they write posts and respond to comments. Aronowitz says they aim to “communicate guidance to people in a way that they’re likely to follow it or at least try to follow.”

Given that what we know about COVID continues to evolve, they post, update, and re-update as necessary about everything from pool testing and vaccine development to whether mosquitoes are transmitters and contact tracing. They interview experts outside the group and court guest writers. Aronowitz recruited her own mom, a nurse practitioner who specializes in college health, to contribute on schools reopening.

All the while, they are grappling with the same kinds of challenges—quarantine bubbles, visiting grandparents, multifamily beach house rentals—that everyone is facing. They are scientists, educators, public health researchers, and nurses, yes. They are also moms, best friends, neighbors, and daughters.

Despite the success, there’s a refreshingly ego-less style to Dear Pandemic. Members of the group usually don’t get bylines on Facebook posts, for example. “I think everyone’s mom assumes that their Nerdy Girl wrote every single post,” Buttenheim says with a chuckle.

Well, maybe not everyone’s mom, Kumar jokes. She had been part of Dear Pandemic for a couple months before her mom asked how she knew so much about COVID. “Well, first of all, I have a background in this stuff,” she says she told her mom. “Second of all, I’ve been doing these posts for Dear Pandemic. She’s like, ‘Oh, you’re doing those?’ She had no idea.”

Team Nerdy Girls

On a recent call with Ritter, Buttenheim read aloud a Facebook message she sent to her friend way back on March 16:

“Ashley, Malia, and I are trying to recruit a couple more Nerdy Girls to help with the Facebook page. Would you be interested? Might look like a 30- to 45-minute shift approving posts and responding to comments. Welcome to generate new content as well.”

Buttenheim and Ritter laughed.

They say in reality the “side gig” easily adds up to 10 hours a week. “We had no idea what this was going to turn into,” Buttenheim says.

So, once the surgeon general “likes” one of your infographics and you have your very own branded T-shirts, what’s next?

The group hasn’t formally established Dear Pandemic as a nonprofit, but they’re looking at setting up for donations and possible commercialization models. Even if the team eventually expands beyond the Nerdy Girls nickname (from an inclusiveness perspective, Aronowitz notes, members who join down the road may identify as male or nonbinary), Buttenheim and Ritter agree that even a COVID-less Dear Pandemic holds endless promise.

“I don’t know what the future holds, but I am very optimistic that the importance of sharing scientific knowledge with the masses is a science that we can grow moving forward,” Ritter says. “Dear Pandemic is a beautiful example of how scientists and broad audiences can come together to share this information.”


The Nerdy Girls Tweet it Out

From glitter to poetry to sex, the folks behind Dear Pandemic are determined to ensure social media has a witty and factual source for accurate COVID-19 information.

@DearPandemic


Q: If masks work, why can I still smell farts when I’m wearing one?

A: We know there are lots of folks out there who have similar concerns about masks. Maybe you’ve wondered about how useful/safe masks are. We at DP are here to help fight the #infodemic, so let’s dive in!

8:03 PM • Jul 27, 2020


Dr. Aparna Kumar demonstrates how to wash hands effectively JUST FOR KIDS using glitter glue, glitter, and even more glitter!!

10:20 AM • Jul 8, 2020


“I Am Confused About My Mask,” a poem from your friends at Dear Pandemic. Written by Dr. Jones, inspired by Dr. Seuss, read by a pack of smart ladies, backed by public health principles.

#masks #maskup #StaySMART #COVID19 #ThisIsPublicHealth

9:52 PM • Jul 8, 2020


Q: Can mosquitoes spread SARS-CoV-2?

A: Thankfully, NO!

We’ll admit the Nerdy Girls had not even contemplated this SCARY prospect before an astute follower question, and it turns out you all aren’t the only ones to wonder.

8:11 AM • Jul 24, 2020


Q: How do I help fight the “infodemic?”

A: Kindness + curiosity + scientific skepticism.

We’re excited to share that a brand-new scientific field of “infodemiology” is emerging!

1:53 PM • Jul 13, 2020


Q: Is sex dead??

A: With the extra household duties, the Zoom fatigue, the existential anxieties, the sadness all around us….it is no wonder that many of us may not be feeling remotely in the mood for sex. Whether you are partnered or not, COVID-19 can be an isolating time.

1:41 PM • Jul 19, 2020