December 19, 2022

Dr. G’s #AGU22 Spotlight – Shermann “Dilla” Thomas

Posted by Laura Guertin

I had my first sabbatical in the 2013-1014 academic year. My original proposed research plans unfortunately did not materialize, and I shifted my efforts in an entirely new direction. I decided that to improve my instruction in my introductory-level geoscience courses for non-STEM majors, I would attend some science communication conferences and workshops. What I learned about sharing science from a different perspective and with different vocabulary was incredible and has had a lasting, positive impact in my science teaching and outreach.

man sitting in a chair on a stage projected on a screen

Shermann Dilla Thomas on stage at AGU

I applaud AGU for bringing presenters to the stage for Fall Meeting attendees to learn from people outside our discipline to encourage us to think and act to benefit broader audiences. This is exactly what happened in the McCormick Place Grand Ballroom on the first day of the 2022 Fall Meeting, during the Presidential Forum Lecture by Shermann “Dilla” Thomas, who encouraged us to think about our own science communication.

Dilla is a Chicago historian who has gone viral with his stories on TikTok (6figga_dilla) and Instagram (@6figga_dilla). If you are not on social media, see his bio, and take a listen to these ~4 minute radio stories he records with WBEZ. Dilla grew up and is a life-long resident of Chicago. He is not a scientist, but a public worker that shared a few tips for us at AGU as he took us through a journey of the history of Chicago’s built environment. Here are some short takeaways I have from his talk:

  • We learn what to do and what not to do from history, which involves putting this information out there and available for others to learn from. Dilla puts history online, and scientists should work to put our science online, which will help make a sustainable world for everyone.
  • The theme of the meeting is Science Leads the Future – which we can do by combining keeping and preserving history with science through building and sharing our voices.
  • Scientists should be using the latest tools and technology available to get our stories out. We should choose to put out work out there on TikTok and Instagram. We learned how to drive stick shift cars and how to program a VCR – therefore, we can learn how to post on social media. We need to work to not keep all of our science behind a paywall that blocks to access to people like Dilla that want to learn from and to share our stories.
  • Once you start posting on social media, there will be hater comments. Be prepared for them, and to ignore them. Keep your focus not on the number of social media followers you have, but who is following and the impacts you are making.
  • Note that the stories we typically read and share usually tell the “who” and “what” – but not the “why.” We need to do a better job including the “why” in our science stories to provide the full background and journey of a person, of a discovery, etc.

Dilla was a powerful Presidential Forum Lecture, reminding us all that we have a bigger audience for our work, we need to make that work available/accessible, and that our work helps provide the history/background that allows for us to fulfill this year’s Fall Meeting theme. I’m not on TikTok myself, but I am left reflecting upon how I can use my social media accounts in an even more impactful way to share science with others…..

A photo taken from the audience looking at a stage