How a Journal Article on Mosquito Repellents Went Viral
By Josh Lancette
Stacy Rodriguez, a researcher in Dr. Immo Hansen’s lab at New Mexico State University, became somewhat famous in November 2015, at least for a few days. Stacy is the first author on a paper that was published in the Journal of Insect Science that tested the effectiveness of different mosquito repellents. The paper was featured by Smithsonian Magazine, USA Today, The Huffington Post, New York Magazine, CBS, Fast Company, Popular Science, the Daily Mail, and a host of other news outlets, including Seventeen magazine.
It went viral because the results of the study suggested that Victoria’s Secret Bombshell perfume had repellent properties similar to products containing DEET. Stacy was kind enough to chat with me about the media attention, being featured in Seventeen, what it’s like to give interviews as a scientist, and making science relatable to the public. Our conversation is below.
You recently published a paper in JIS that was picked up by news outlets around the world. Were you tracking the media coverage as the paper went viral?
I did notice it. It started out really slow and then took off like wild fire. There was one article titled, “Victoria’s Secret Bombshell Wards Off Vampires,” or something like that. It was a blog that one of my lab members had posted on Facebook. After I saw that, I started tracking the media progress and then all of a sudden everybody picked it up. I saw a bunch of news articles related to “Victoria’s Secret Bombshell Wards Off Mosquitoes.”
It was fun watching it unfold. Were you surprised by the media attention?
Dr. Hansen had just published a big paper in Nature Communications on an amino acid transporter. It was pretty novel research. Then I published right after, and I didn’t expect any sort of recognition because people have published repellent studies previously. I thought this paper would have boomed during mosquito season, but even though it was published during the winter months, it still took off. So I was actually kind of really surprised. USA Today was surprising. I was just kind of amazed in general how many different news outlets picked it up. There was even a German video about the study.
Yeah, and my professor is German and showed me the video clip from a German news outlet. There was also a news outlet in Malaysia that picked up the story.
Wow. I’ll have to look those up. The one our office got a kick out of was Seventeen. Did you ever read Seventeen growing up?
I did! I did. It was interesting being in a magazine that you read when you were really young. I never thought I would be in Seventeen. Of course, I never thought I would be in USA Today either.
There can’t be many entomologists or entomology studies featured in Seventeen. I don’t have any official numbers on that, but I expect it would be few.
I know. Well, not very many 17-year-olds are worried about mosquitoes.
Did any news outlets ask to do interviews with you?
The Huffington Post did interview my professor and me about the study.
What was that like?
They just wanted some quotes and to clarify some details. They were pretty short interviews. I guess they just wanted to make their articles a little different than everyone else’s.
Your paper was about the effectiveness of different repellents, but the media really latched on to the idea that Victoria’s Secret perfume was as effective as repellents with DEET for two hours. Did you anticipate people latching onto that one small part of the study?
Well, thinking about it from a journalist’s perspective, you want to make something relatable to the public. I think the problem with getting science out to the public is that science isn’t always super relatable in an obvious way. What made this study more attractive to the public is that there is a popular perfume that everyone knows about and might even wear. Also, everyone knows Victoria’s Secret, and that relatability sparks people’s interest.
I saw in the Huffington Post article that the perfume was a present to one of your co-authors. Is that correct?
Yes! It was a present.
Did you test it because she didn’t like the smell?
No, she likes Victoria’s Secret perfume! It was Lisa Drake, the second author on the paper. For Christmas I got her a variety pack of perfume. She used to ride her bike a lot to the university, and so she always had perfumes and lotions here. We kind of randomly thought, “Why don’t we use this in our study and see what happens?” And then it actually had a pretty good repellent effect on the mosquitoes.
So you gave her the gift originally?
How much perfume was actually used? More than any sane person would wear?
Well, you have to understand, it’s a normal amount depending on where you put it. We put it on her hand. Whenever I put on perfume, I do four sprays. For her hand, we did four sprays. That’s what we did with all of the repellents. It was about 0.5 ml of spray for each repellent, less for the perfume. We standardized that as best we could. For these repellents, some are oil-based and some are water-based, and that has a lot to do with how long they stay on your skin. In general, on the directives of the different repellents, it says you need to reapply after two hours or so depending on the product. With the water-based repellents, you’re going to have to reapply them fairly often. Now the OFF! Deep Woods — that is oil based. The repellency effect lasted a long time according to our studies, and it makes sense that it would last a long time, because oil-based products take more time to wear off than a water-based solution.
I thought it was interesting that with all the coverage, Victoria’s Secret didn’t make any comment that I saw. I suppose insect repellency isn’t exactly on brand.
No, it’s not, but it isn’t a bad move in this market. We did give them a lot of free media attention.
Do you enjoy the media attention? I think interview requests and such would make me feel uncomfortable because I’m not great at speaking on my feet. Are you comfortable with it, or does it feel out of your element?
It’s a little out of my comfort zone. I’m getting more familiar with the idea of interviews and talking to media, but you have to get into a different mindset. Talking to the media is a lot different than talking to people who are in the entomology field, so you have to gear your language more toward the public, because that’s eventually who is going to read the article. It is a little difficult.
During school or throughout your career, are you offered media training or classes on making science relatable to the public? Or is it something you have to figure out as you go?
There are some seminar classes at NMSU. NMSU also gives students opportunities to present their data to the public and also to scientists in the same field. We have an in-house symposium for biology majors, and we have graduate research presentations on campus that include all of the arts and sciences as well as engineering colleges. We give students an opportunity to talk about their research because the more they talk about it, the more comfortable they are, which will help them talk to the media and people in general about their research. You always think you have a good understanding of your project, but sometimes it’s a lot harder to communicate what you know about a project to someone who doesn’t do the same research as you, or someone who doesn’t do research at all. At the Hansen lab, we like to take undergraduate and graduate students to the Entomological Society of America’s Annual Meeting, and I think that helps with their presentation skills. It’s still kind of unnerving to have interviews, though.
That’s great to hear there are opportunities to gain experience in explaining scientific studies to the public. I think that’s a valuable skill to have.
It really is.
You published this paper in the Journal of Insect Science, an open-access journal. What was your experience like publishing in JIS?
It was a really good experience. Some journals make it really difficult to send in work. JIS was accessible to the user. I also thought the reviewers were incredibly fair. The entire experience was pretty great, actually.
Josh Lancette is Manager of Publications at the Entomological Society of America.