Shelter in a Twitter storm

Scientist takes on coronavirus misinformation on social media
Image by Owen Egan / Joni Dufour.

Fatima Tokhmafshan, MSc’18, is setting the record straight.

Under the handle @DeNovo_Fatima, she debunks misconceptions about COVID-19 on Twitter and TikTok. In one recent video, she explains why a messenger RNA vaccine cannot alter your DNA (DNA lives in the cell nucleus, while RNA floats in the cytoplasm outside of that nucleus). She answers questions from followers, and has formed alliances with local, national and international sources of evidence-based public health information.

By day, the geneticist works at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC), where she specializes in childhood renal disease.

She began moonlighting as a science communicator in response to the “bad science” circulating online during the pandemic.

“Lives are at stake and misinformation is unfortunately very rampant,” says Tokhmafshan, who uses her posts to correct the mistaken beliefs she sees online. Explaining antigen testing, or the difference between infection, contagion and transmission, has helped her contribute to the public’s understanding of the pandemic in an era of confusing and sometimes misleading information.

Early in the pandemic, a friend shared a TikTok video with Tokhmafshan that made multiple false claims. “It sounded like the person had some scientific background,” she says, “which is even worse because, if you use certain terminology and you come up off as scientific, people tend to believe it more.” She posted a response video of her own—and a sideline was born.

The 32-year-old, who has been in Montreal since her graduate studies at McGill, brings a sense of empathy to her content, having experienced for herself how facts can assuage fear. As an 18-year-old recently arrived refugee in Toronto, she received a cancer diagnosis and found herself trying to comprehend, with poor English skills, what was happening to her. But her physician (a former refugee) helped her get through the ordeal. “She would take her time explaining complex scientific ideas to me. These interactions sparked my passion for studying biological sciences.”

Tokhmafshan, whose political activism in Iran had made her a target for the authorities, was brought to Canada by Amnesty International. With her family having to remain in Iran, she lived with an older Canadian couple who helped her adjust to her new life. It’s that couple she has an image of when trying to break down information. “They're in their 80s, and so I think of them when I'm trying to explain complex scientific concepts.”

Her ability to put herself in the shoes of those with limited science knowledge was developed through her volunteer work in Toronto when she was an undergrad at York University. She taught teens at Pathways to Education, which helps those from low socio-economic backgrounds overcome education barriers. “That's where my science communication journey started, trying to teach and communicate complex scientific ideas,” she says, recalling the excitement she and her students felt the day they extracted DNA from a banana.

It was during her graduate studies, searching one day for Python coding help, when she began to recognize the power and generosity of social media. The queries she posted put her in touch with experts who were able to immediately answer her questions. But she also sees social media as a potentially harmful tool that can amplify a bad health message. “It spreads like wildfire, and then it becomes much harder to disprove because, even though the truth is on your side, the burden of proof falls on you.”

Luckily, she is not alone.

She has found allies at Covid-19 Resources Canada, where she plays a key role in #ScienceExplained, a science communication initiative that offers expert-authored information in multiple languages. She’s working with a national science communication campaign called #ScienceUpFirst (#LaScienceDabord in French), which was launched on January 25 by Senator Stan Kutcher and academic and science communicator Tim Caulfield. She has also been using her science knowledge in a local effort formed out of Montreal Gazette health reporter Aaron Derfel’s Twitter feed to explain some health reports and debunk certain COVID myths. And she has worked with Australian virologist Ian McKay (of the “Swiss Cheese Respiratory Pandemic Defense” model).

Tokhmafshan, who also sits on the MUHC Research Ethics Board, credits a raft of McGill professors for giving her the tools for communicating good science, notably Dr. Loydie Jerome-Majewska, Jacquetta Trasler, MDCM’80, PhD’87, Dr. Aimee Ryan and Dr. Don Sheppard, PGME’99, as well as her supervisor, Dr. Paul Goodyer, who has been supporting this flourishing second career as a science communicator.

The geneticist looks forward to future tweets that will help inform more people, including those who grab on to false theories that may help them feel better. Her teen activism has developed into a call for better science literacy, and as the pandemic winds its way through its next phases, she looks forward to continuing to simply present good science.

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