Su’s research examines effects of humor, social media, and new technologies on science communication

Leona Su

Leona Yi-Fan Su, assistant professor in the Charles H. Sandage Department of Advertising, is interested in how humor can help people engage with science.

“Science is thought of as serious,” Su said. “So you can think of humor as a way to catalyze that and make people get interested in science and be more willing to interact with science and scientists.” 

While humor has been extensively studied in fields like advertising and marketing, she said, its role in science communication is less known.

Su is a co-principal investigator on an NSF-funded project that was awarded $750,000 in 2019 to examine the effectiveness of using humor for communication about science, particularly on social media. Sara Yeo, associate professor at the University of Utah, is the principal investigator, and the other co-principal investigator is Michael Cacciatore, professor at the University of Georgia.

“It’s important to keep in mind that humor plays a role, but different types of humor can play differently on different social media platforms and when communicating about various issues,” Su said.

Humor is often thought of as a simple construct, Su said. But really, it has a range of different types and techniques, such as benign versus aggressive humor. She also noted the differences in online culture between Twitter and Instagram.

In a recently published article, Su and her coauthors reported that wordplay and satire were positively linked to the number of likes and retweets a Twitter post received. On the other hand, anthropomorphic humor—attributing human characteristics to animals or objects—was negatively linked to the presence of comments, and humor was not linked to user engagement on Instagram. 

Scientists and communicators have ample opportunities to interact with the public online, Su said.

“I think it’s important to encourage scientists to share their work with the public and to help with public engagement,” she added, and noted that her work can help them select message strategies.

Su’s broader interest is in how social media and other digital media change people’s perceptions and understandings of science. This also includes looking at the marketing techniques and brand communication strategies used on digital media by agricultural and technology businesses. For example, as a principal investigator, she is leading a project at the Center for Digital Agriculture that analyzes tweets about an emerging food technology, with the aim of understanding branding strategies and public opinion.

Above all, Su said, a key aim of her research is to bridge the gap between the general public and science.

The public should not be viewed merely as passive information receivers, Su said. That is, people don’t often make decisions solely on the facts presented to them.

It’s a common misconception that people will be more supportive of science if they “are more knowledgeable about science,” she said, but in fact, their attitudes toward science can also be affected by heuristic cues such as their politics and other predisposition factors.

Having earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry, Su changed her academic focus after realizing she was more interested in understanding how science is communicated.

“I feel like there’s a gap [within] science communication,” she said. “When I was a scientist, I realized there are times you feel like what you are doing is just a language of your own.”

Su hopes her research will not only help scientists, but anyone who has to communicate complex topics.

“I do hope that some of our findings here in [science] communication can actually be applied or extended to other fields,” she said. “We have to know how messages can be more effectively communicated.”

—Vivian La, Communications Intern