Culture and communication
How #SnailLove led me to the BBC
Jeremy the lefty snail gave Dr Angus Davison’s research a staggering global reach. He explains how Jeremy’s quest for true love led to an award-winning engagement campaign and inspired the geneticist’s own foray into the media.
I didn’t expect to be talking about ‘traumatic insemination’ with Radio 4’s Sarah Montague, live on air at 8.20 in the morning.
I’d been invited on to the flagship Today programme to talk about Jeremy the snail and his quest for a mate. Jeremy was a rare ‘lefty’ snail, a one-in-a-million whose shell coils to the left (sinistral) compared to the much more common right-handed dextral snails.
The ‘trauma’ comes when snails mate. They forcefully stab ‘love-darts’ into each other. But the mirror-image body asymmetry of lefty snails means they can only reproduce with fellow lefties, hence Jeremy’s slim chances of finding a mate. Left on the shellf, you could say.
As an evolutionary geneticist, I find these quirks of nature fascinating. And when I published the biggest paper of my career in Current Biology, revealing a gene that determines whether snail shells twist clockwise or anticlockwise, I’d hoped the media would too.
But beyond my scientific peers, there wasn’t much wider interest. That’s where Emma Thorne, a member of the University’s press team, came in, and how my rare snail became a media darling.
Together, Emma and I worked out a global appeal to find the hermaphrodite snail, Jeremy, a mate. This would enable me to study ‘his’ offspring and help unlock the mystery of what causes body asymmetry.
Thanks especially to social media, lovelorn Jeremy found a mate, shipped from Spain to Nottingham by ‘snail mail’. The trail of #SnailLove took him and me on to Today five times over the course of a year. A raft of other interviews followed, putting my research and the University of Nottingham in the spotlight around the world. It gave me insight into how journalists think and how a hook for a story acts as a gateway into understanding research and its impact. It also reinforced my belief that sharing the outputs of research is an obligation – much of our work as scientists is publicly funded. Going public also makes new connections with collaborators, other institutions and funders.
Emma’s creative #SnailLove campaign made Jeremy a ‘shellebrity’, but also put genetics in the headlines in a novel, engaging way. The research findings have implications beyond snails – although we humans are symmetric on the outside, just like snails our body organs are inside arranged asymmetrically. Sometimes, organ positioning defects cause health problems, and about one in ten thousand persons is mirror-imaged internally compared with everyone else. As an evolutionary geneticist, the medical aspects are best left to others – but by studying snails I aim to shed light on the conserved pathways that may guide animal development.
Jeremy and the experience of working with journalists inspired me to sample life on the other side of the microphone. I successfully applied to become a British Science Association Media Fellow, a University-funded secondment where academics are embedded with news organisations as journalists. It allows newspapers, broadcasters and websites to draw on expertise in identifying and writing science-based stories, and it gives academics an insight into how research is depicted in the media.
I joined the BBC Science Unit in London, working alongside journalists such BBC R4 broadcaster Claudia Hammond, Science Editors Paul Rincon, David Shukman and Pallab Ghosh. Pitching stories at the morning editorial meeting – on a windowsill in the corner of the room – was in itself very revealing. My biggest online hit – making the top 10 most read articles on the BBC – was about the science of online dating. But my most satisfying piece of writing was on the evolution of the human big toe, partly because I then reported on the story to the World Service, broadcasting live from the BBC Newsroom.
I learned how the headline, the first line of a story and images are crucial – crafting these while staying true to the essence of a story is an artform. Better, more effective writing is a skill that I hope to apply to my science, not just public engagement.
Thanks to Emma’s help in spreading the story and finding Jeremy a mate, harnessing the power of citizen science has helped progress my research. Emma and I have since picked up several international and national marketing awards. Alongside my research, I have also taken on a new role of championing public engagement for the School of Life Sciences, which will be informed by my experiences – on both sides of the mic.
£10.8m equivalent value of media coverage in paid-for advertising
1,014 editorial articles
2,478 social posts
1.9bn global audience reach
4 BBC Radio 4's Pick of the Week
Dr Angus Davison
Dr Angus Davison is an Associate Professor and Reader in Evolutionary Genetics in the School of Life Sciences, where his lab uses snails to understand evolutionary and developmental genetics.