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Are You A Scientist Facing Online Harassment? Here Are 7 Strategies To Help You Cope

Sridhah Naminathan, PhD

Clinical Psychologists & Advanced Practitioner,  Glasgow, UK


If you or someone you know is experiencing online harassment, remember that you are not powerless. There are concrete steps you can take to defend yourself and others. The guidance below will help you decide how to act if you, or one of your colleagues or students, is affected by this.

Last week, a 24 year old man from the Essex market town of Chelmsford, 40 miles east of London, UK was sent to jail after admitting harassing the Professor Chris Whitty, the epidemiologist and Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK’s Department of Health & Social Care.

Footage that emerged last year had showed Mr. Jonathan Chew, together with his accomplice, Mr. Lewis Hughes, attacking Whitty, and holding him.

Luckily for the many of us not in the direct limelight, physical attacks such as those on Whitty are relatively rare. But we can relate to online attacks, either directly or on those we know. Online attacks at scientists and academics have become a major issue today, and going by the number of posts online, the signs are that things are not abating.

In a 2021 study by Nature, many scientists reported receiving death threats, hateful slurs, and physical intimidation or threats of sexual violence. Many scientists with a public profile have experienced some form of attack on their credibility or been threatened with violence.

Online abuse is not new-it begun with the arrival of the internet, the difference is that the problem is growing. In the middle of a global pandemic, conditions have become ripe for online conspiracy theories, hate and harassment, fuelled polarisation around vaccines and treatment options.

These attacks pose a direct and critical threat to free expression, and are an attempt to stifle the voice of science, by intimidating experts that provide the public with the information and guidance needed by governments and the public.

Against this background, I spoke with experts and survivors of online harassment to compile a quick list of tips and resources for coping with online abuse without being silenced or forced offline.

If you or someone you know comes under attack, here are some of the steps you can take to protect yourself and others.

Identify the threat

The first step is to make out what’s really happening. Is it simply an unkind remark (“You’re not a good scientist” “Where did you train from?”), a disparaging comment? (“You’re a fool!”) or categorically abusive, for example, gendered or racist?

Online abuse covers many behaviours and technologies. It happens when a person (or bot) acts in a manner that causes distress and harm to another person. It is usually repeated and targeted, but may not always be obvious. Some of the common tactics — albeit ever-evolving and often overlapping — include: hateful speech, sexual harassment, threats of physical and sexual violence, impersonation, doxing, pornography, message bombing, and many more. You can find detailed guidance here.

The bottom line is that if you’re being criticised or insulted, you can choose to refute it or ignore it. If the attack is sinister and you’re being abused, distilling what you’re experiencing not only signals that it’s a tangible problem, but can also help you communicate with family, friends, employers, and authorities.

Document the attacks

What is often overlooked is platforms take down abusive content that violets their terms of service, meaning that any evidence you might have of the abuse is removed. For this reason, it’s necessary to have a separate log of the abuse before you report it. You should aim to save emails, voicemails, and texts. For social media, take screenshots on and copy links, if possible. Where the abuse is coming from one specific individual or group, you should document it as thoroughly as possible as this can help uncover any patterns and shore up evidence.

A record of abuse is indispensable if you chose to engage authorities or take legal action. It can also be hugely helpful in conversations with line managers at work, as it obviates repeating abusive comments aloud, which is often unpleasant. Pointing to a screenshot is often less uncomfortable, and actually more impactful.

Review your personal safety

It is not impossible for online abuse to morph into physical abuse. Therefore, it is important to assess whether online abuse is presents a real danger to your own physical safety or that of your family or colleagues. Granted, online anonymity makes this onerous to figure out. Here are a set of questions to help you assess the significance of a threat, which you can do with a friend or colleague as a sounding board:

  • Do you know your abuser? Do they have a history of violent behaviour?
  • Is the threat targeted and specific? Does it include your name, a time, a place, or a method of attack?
  • Does the abuser seem irrational, for example, threatening you using their real name, email, or phone number?
  • Has the abuser migrated across platforms or moved offline (e.g., voicemails, physical mail, or packages left at your door or workplace)?

These are some of important red flags. They signal it’s time to take steps, particularly if you’re being made to feel physically unsafe in any way. You may need to temporarily relocate, such as a hotel or a friend’s place. You may also need to report the threats to authorities who are best positioned to deal, not just with online threats, but also physical dangers.

Ignore, block, mute, and report

Most bullies, perpetrators of online abuse are in it to get a reaction from you. Don’t play into their hands and get into a fight online. Sometimes, simply ignoring the comments can make the individual move on. You can also consider blocking, muting, and reporting abuse. Platforms offer option that allow you to block or mute accounts or even specific posts (so you don’t have to see them). You can report abuse that violates terms of service to try to get a post taken down or an account suspended.

Understandably, while helpful, these actions are temporary and often counterproductive. For instance, blocking an account can escalate abuse or move it offline. Muting can make it hard for you to monitor the scale of threats, and reporting is often ineffective.

Reinforce your online security

Just like physical security, taking time to bolster your online security can ensure trolls don’t get an easy ride accessing and broadcasting your private information. Protect yourself from hacks and intrusion by improving password strength (use long passwords which combine words and symbols with at least 12 characters), never re-use passwords, use invented answers to security questions, and set up two-factor authentication (OTP) on your key personal and professionnal accounts (email, social media, banking, etc.). A password manager is another tool you can use to take care of this.

Speak out

Speaking out against abuse can be empowering. The key is to be careful and deliberate. There are several strategies you can deploy. One option is to practice counterspeech, which you can read about through this link. Some people use highly creative strategies, such as sending a picture of a kitten or puppy in response to an abusive message, or telling the abuser that their mothers or employers will be notified about their unbecoming behaviour. Do what you’re comfortable with—being mindful of your employer’s social media policy.

Look after your wellbeing

Online abuse often elicits feelings of fear, self-loathing and guilt. It can be exhausting and demotivating, and leaving lasting damage to your mental, emotional, and physical health. The mistake is ignoring how you’re feeling.

Therefore, it’s important to make time for your wellbeing. This can include meditation, cooking, listening to music or going for walks. Whatever you choose, it must involve taking regular breaks from your devices so that you get that crucial mental headspace.

If matters escalate and you’re not coping, seeking professional mental health care can make a big difference, especially if you get to a point where you feel hopeless or paralyzed by fear, talk about your abuse obsessively, struggle to enjoy things, or have difficulty eating or sleeping.

And finally…

Every day, scientists in and out of the limelight hate and violent threats, and some of them choose to respond directly in order to refute or undermine it. If you’re affected, you don’t have to follow each every step listed above, let alone in the nominated order. It may well necessitate implementing a number of these in tandem or skipping some and coming back to others when they are most helpful. It is also important to remember that like many other aspects of human behaviour, trolling and online abuse are multifarious, and there is almost no way of predicting what an individual will do, or even prevent it. It is up to organisations, platforms, governments and wider society to recognise this and put into place the correct institutional mechanisms to address this scourge.

What I have suggested here is what you can do at an individual level. I hope that it offers you a good starting place if you’re experiencing abuse. With the right tools, support of others, and confidence in your own self, you can take a stand and push back against online abuse, and protect the voice of science.

Reproducing taste with a Norimaki Synthesizer

A Meiji University scientist has invented a method for digitally reproducing taste and flavour in the same just as we do for sound.


In the pharmaceutical industry, taste masking of bitter products intended for oral administration is often undertaken during the product formulation stage. The effectiveness of taste-masking methods

Since flavour is a dynamic sense that is influenced by formulation ingredient, effective assessment of taste masking requires actual sensory analysis to be done on the drug product in its final formulation. If the drug product is potent or cytotoxic then sensory analysis may not be possible.

An alternative approach is the use of an electronic tongue – which relies on converting molecular information in a product to generate a signature that can be related to certain qualities of the product, for example, acidic, bitter, salty, etc. nevertheless, the electronic tongue has disadvantages, notably, the need for a huge amount of previous measurements for calibration.

Thanks to Dr. Homei Miyashita, a professor in the aptly named Department of Frontier Media Science, Meiji University, Japan, formulators of drug products will be soon be able to accurately taste and profile their formulations without needing to sniff or taste any product.

Dr. Miyashita interest in food and taste goes a long way back to when he was a child. He has undertaken research on technology and the human senses while at Meiji University, culminating in the Norimaki Synthesizer.

You can read more about Dr. Miyashita’s device through this link:

The Power of Empathy: What Pharma Can Learn from the Tech Industry

An empathetic consideration of people’s lived experiences in new drug development is a key factor in availing products that improve patient outcomes while also reducing costs to society.

Enosh Mwesigwa PhD MBA

Pharmaceutical Industry Professional


The broad appeal and runaway success of the iPhone (and other products including the Fitbit Versa, Google Nest Learning thermostat, and Amazon’s Echo and Alexa devices) has been attributed to many factors, not least their elegant designs, library of applications and the genius of the engineers that created them. All these are valid points of view and I do not dispute them.

What is all the more interesting is that such personable products, such as the iPhone, Fitbit Versa and Nest Learning thermostat, should emerge out of tech. ‘Geeks’ after all are not your stereotypical touchy-feely types compared with, say, your regular healthcare professional.

Those who are interested in design will tell you that all the above-named devices were designed around the lived circumstances of customers. Engineers in tech call this pain points.

The iPhone is designed to address users’ pain points, mindful of the importance of simplifying users’ daily lives. It is not enough to solve a problem; the solution must also be easy to use, look and feel good, and provide a ‘good feeling’ while in use (not create new pain points).

Engineers put a lot of time studying pain points and mapping out the expectations of all their potential customers. Insights gained at this early stage feed directly into any solution they create.

Compare this with the pharmaceutical industry. Once a new drug substance has been identified and completed its clinical evaluation, product developers will embark on developing a dosage form – this is the embodiment of the drug substance that patients eventually use.

The choice of a dosage form is not necessarily guided by users circumstances in the way tech engineers do. Instead, it is the materials available, regulations and technology to fabricate the dosage form that guide selection.

Even in the build up to launching on the market, the drug product remains centre stage, with focus being placed on satisfying clinical needs, as defined by governments or physicians.

All along, end users (patients) remain a distant abstract. How their lived experiences fit in with the selected dosage form or route of administration or dosing frequency rarely feature in conversations.

If you are in doubt, consider this story:

Chester is a 3 year old boy. He was diagnosed with Minimal Change Nephrotic Syndrome just after his second birthday. His condition leads to leakage of protein into urine, which results into many health problems, such as low blood protein levels, high cholesterol levels, high triglyceride levels, and swelling. Nephrotic syndrome patients are also highly susceptible to infections. At various times, he has been prescribed a cocktail of medicines, including rituximab, prednisolone, tacrolimus, ramipril, amlodipine, hydrochlorothiazide, calcium-D, and atorvastatin, in addition to antibiotics which are administered to him from time to time.

For his tender age, Chester’s medication burden is unnecessarily high. His regimen is complex and only a selection of his medicines have approval for use in children of his age. Moreover, a good selection of these is only as tablets (which children of Chester’s age struggle to take).

The issues faced by Chester are not atypical. Patients with chronic diseases face similar challenges.

It is as though those who develop medicines somehow have a blind spot to the many challenges that children like Chester face. You can blame this state of affairs on the way healthcare has traditionally been structured; as patients, we have always depended on our physicians to recommend what to use, and for one reason or another, this has become the default approach.

But things do not need to be this way. As the tech sector has demonstrated, successful products are those developed from the perspectives of end-users. This is what tech calls empathy-driven product development.

Definition of Empathy

Simply defined, empathy is a person’s ability to recognize and share the experiences of another person, both intellectually and emotionally. It involves, first, seeing the other person’s situation from their perspective, and, second, sharing those experiences.

We can distinguish empathy at two levels: individual and organizational. At the individual level, empathy helps us respond appropriately in social situations, build social connections, and support and encourage others on an individual, person-to-person level.

At the organizational level, empathy is about a shared resolve within an organization to show empathy to all stakeholders, including a commitment to recognise and correctly respond to the needs of its customers.

Empathy is not the same as sympathy, a term that describes a feeling of care and concern. Sympathy does not involve a shared perspective or shared emotions.


Examples of Empathy in Products (Fitbit Versa Smart Watch)

Not very long ago fitness trackers were very basic pedometers. There was no option to directly estimate the number of calories burned. Then Fitbit released its range of smart devices (such as Fitbit Versa), which were personalised fitness trackers that also incorporated a smart watch and an app. This opened up new functionalities. Not only were these new devices pedometers, but they also were not able to track fitness, answer calls, send notifications, play music, track your pulse and sleep. Some devices had their own ecosystem of apps, which allowed further personalisation.

As one business analyst commented, smart watches are like “someone who knows more about what you need than you do.”

As I pointed out earlier, in tech, the product must not only be useful and meet a need, but it must also be easy to use, look and feel good and provide a good feeling while being used. Engineers describe these attributes in terms of usability and user experience (UX).

Elements of User Experience (Adapted from Nielsen Norman Group – Definition of user experience)

Now think of the last time you needed the use of any medication such as an inhaler (if you have a child who needs an inhaler device, you will know what I am talking about) or even the humble suppository.



While I hope the medicine was useful, it probably did not meet all the other parameters defined in user experience, such as ease of use.

I know I am pushing the envelope here and the Fitbit Versa and a suppository are literally worlds apart. However, the point is that many products out of healthcare rarely elicit pleasant experiences.

Many oral medicines are unacceptably bitter, medicine packages impossible to open without risking injury, instructions confusing, inhalers impossible to master, and as for suppositories, well, the less said the better! Basically, we’re expected to ‘swallow the bitter pill’ and get on with it.

A little empathy on the part of medicine developers would go a long way. It is not enough for a medicine to be safe and efficacious, patients’ lived experiences; namely their ages, circumstances, preferences, values, cultural traditions, comfort, emotional well-being and socioeconomic conditions, are of equal importance, and need to be included in the formulation equation.


Moving in the Right Direction

Fortunately, there is now a growing interest in using this empathetic approach to new product design within pharma.

Astellas Pharma, for example, is implementing what they call “Patient Focus Experience.” The company aims to understand what matters to the patient and integrating the insights garnered into their development programmes. This will without doubt close the gap between the patient’s needs and the company’s processes and products.

But we still have is that too many companies paying lip service to patients. They still see the world in this paternalistic, myopic way, and are failing to recognise that behind drug products are real people, who face `different pain points.

Opportunities to Apply Empathy

Pursuing empathy requires corporations, not just those that research and develop product in laboratories, to develop a nuanced understanding of patients’ lived circumstances. This is more than an intellectual exercise: it has to involve ‘walking the talk’, visiting and seeing at first-hand what patients go through; their day-to-day struggles and expectations.


Here are four consider of patients where more work is long overdue:


  1. People with conditions which are chronic, symptomatic or affect activities of daily living

In conditions such as asthma, diabetes, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, COPD, chronic kidney disease, IBD and Parkinsonism, life for sufferers is a daily balancing act. From a pharmaceutical care perspective, people in this category face the following challenges of high medication burden and regimen, which often confuse patients about how and when to take medicine; regimen complexity; preventable side-effects and how to stay motivated and adhere to prescribed regiments. It has been estimated that these ‘pain points’ contribute up to 50% of patients on chronic medication regimens not adhere to their treatment, a staggering amount of waste!


  1. People with conditions for which some aspects of disease are not fully captured in clinical trials

Drug bioavailability and disposition can be influenced by a number of disease conditions (such as diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, pain, celiac disease, and other idiopathic and iatrogenic syndromes, often involving a broad range of or overlapping symptoms) as well as factors such as diet, age and ethnicity. These influences are easy to replicate during standardized clinical trials which are far removed from real-world circumstances under which patients are treated or live.

This calls for further research on how pharmacokinetic models and dosing recommendations can be best applied to patients with these conditions to ensure patient safety and product effectiveness.

Precision medicines designed to target specific genetic, molecular and cellular markers have the ability to provide patients with treatments that offer better outcomes compared with the current scatter gun approach that is in wide use.


  1. Patients with conditions for which there are currently no therapies or few therapies or therapies that do not affect how the patient feels or functions.

This is a diverse group and as such the barriers experienced by different individuals are not uniform. However, consider individuals and children with neurodevelopmental disorders and disabilities, such as autistic spectrum disorders (ASD), as an example. In ASD there are often other overlapping symptoms and co-occurring disorders. Children also have a wide range of sensitivities – to colours, tastes, textures and noises, as well as physical and intellectual impairments. Many refuse to eat certain foods, let alone medicines, because of sensitivities to taste or texture. Parents of children with ASD know how difficult it is to convince them to swallow pills or teaching them how to use a complex device such as an inhaler. Clearly, more work needs to be done, ranging from ergonomics, to taste and palatability as well as simplifying regimens to address these challenges.


  1. Conditions which selectively impact identifiable sub-populations, such as children and the elderly

Issues facing children are well articulated in the literature. However, there still remains a wide gap in the availability of medicines with specific approval for paediatric patients. In addition, many products are presented in formats that children are not able to or unwilling to take, and the younger the child, the worse the situation. This contributes to the wide use of unlicensed, off-label products, which increase the risk of harm.

Seniors, on the other hand, are one of the biggest but also the most heterogeneous users of medication. They have diverse health needs while also carrying a higher burden of chronic illness, frailty, mobility and manual dexterity issues, dysphagia, medication burden and regimen complexity.


What can be done? There are already proven and available technical solutions that can be deployed right away. These include:

  • Simplifying medication regimens, including once a day dosing, prolonged/delayed release
  • Use of combination products as well as package-drug systems
  • Integrating human factors in device designs to improve usability (e.g asthma inhalers) and/or ergonomics
  • Greater utilization of technologies such as tablet coatings and identifiable marking to improve identification and differentiation (why do all tablet have to look the same?)
  • Increasing use of orally dissolving tablets (ODT) or fast dissolve systems, chewing gums and sublingual tablets in lieu of conventional (swallow) tablets.
  • Efforts to use BIG Data and modern information technologies to capture insights from across the board and use these in product design
  • More research into personalized and precision therapies to improve quality, safety and effectiveness



The current new product development processes are reminiscent of yesterday’s thinking. As the world around us rapidly transforms, and as patients become ever more sophisticated, informed and opinionated, product development professionals will need to start embracing empathy in the formulation equation. This empathetic shift will not only enable pharmaceutical companies to create truly impactful products in line with their existing goals but it will also reduce costs to.


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