She investigates the media’s view of the world
21 February 2020
Alumnus of the Year 2019, Emma Frans, has a passion for spreading facts and punching holes in media myths – in books, newspaper articles, social media and on television. Her purpose is to reach out with important knowledge, preferably garnished with a large dose of humour. On 3 March she will receive the Alumnus of the Year award and will hold a talk at the University Main Building.
Emma Frans comes on her bike from the Central Station and parks it close the University Main Building. The Alumna of the Year has lived in Uppsala for most of her life and has always had some sort of relationship with Uppsala University. There are childhood pictures of her in the crowd at the student welcoming ceremony at Carolinabacken in late April, and at lower secondary school she did her work experience at Snerikes student nation.
“Living in a university town has permeated my whole upbringing,” says Emma Frans, smiling broadly. “After upper-secondary school came several years of studies, primarily in the bio-medical programme, but also in peace and conflict research and ethics.”
Emma Frans still lives in Uppsala today, but she commutes to Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm where she has a half position as a researcher and lecturer in epidemiology. The rest of the time she is an author, lecturer and feature writer for the daily paper Svenska Dagbladet under science column Vetenskapskollen.
In this column, she examines claims by going through scientific sources. This can range from whether stretching really helps against exercise aches to how sensitive peanut allergy sufferers actually are.
Her latest article was all about so-called incels, who live in involuntary celibacy. Is it really true that more men than women are involuntarily celibate? Article topics are suggested by the editor, the readers or herself.
“Often it is just things that I have heard or read about and I also try to connect with the news stream... With regard to incels, lots of people in the culture sector have opinions and write stuff. So it is a pretty neat idea to go to a research study that men overestimate how much sex women have. It is commonly believed that young women have 23 times a month, while the actual figures are six times a month. Highlighting these kinds of numbers gives an interesting angle to the whole thing.”
Emma Frans reads an awful lot of popular science books and listens to popular science podcasts for inspiration. When she finds to a topic that she really wants to check out, she looks for literature on the research database Pub Med.
Why did you begin to write about these things?
“I wanted to reach others and thought that science outreach was important. And it didn’t take long to get feedback that I was good at it. I had been interviewed about my research a few times and came into contact with the public and media. But as I experienced that what I had had been misinterpreted, I also felt a need to choose the right channel out the general public.”
Emma Frans started a blog in which she wrote about popular science. To attract more readers and traffic to the blog, she also sign up for a Twitter account. It proved that the short format on Twitter suited her well.
“Fairly soon I got a lot of followers and then other doors opened. I got the chance to write in Svenska Dagbladet and then the ball started to roll.
This has resulted in two books, a major journalism prize, work on national TV and an assignment as a Democracy Ambassador. She is also in constant demand from the media to comment on current events. Lately, she has given several interviews about the Corona virus.
In addition to all this, she works as a researcher, not leading her own projects but participating in others’. She has chosen to remain outside the traditional career path for researchers.
“It was no easy decision, but I feel now that my strength lies in out reaching and many others are better suited to conducting cutting-edge research. I am pretty much of a generalist and love the broad perspectives.”
All of this began more or less at Uppsala University where she took her first steps in academia. She spends a lot of time at the Biomedical Centre (BMC), and she enjoys the small and special community with long corridors and peaceful inner courtyards.
As a native of Uppsala, she was as not as immersed in the student nation life as her out-of-town course-mates. But she learned a lot for the future.
“I learned how to study and find information. I still do that. When you get up to university level, it is no longer enough to be a bit clever, you have to find a routine.”
Gathering facts is an important part of Emma Frans’ work but at least as important is her sense of humour. Reading her writing is often a lot of fun.
“I often use humour as a technique and that has proved to be very successful. Otherwise, there is a problem because you only reach out to those who are already interested in research and science, while those who perhaps need the knowledge more ignore it. Humour can make it much more accessible. My followers on social media probably are not always in interested in science, but they get the science for free along with the rest.”
Face to face, she is a very inspiring narrator. Unfortunately, we have to wrap up our talk for this time. It is time for her to bike home in the Uppsala evening light.
Emma Frans – facts
Brief summary of her career: Studies in biomedicine at Uppsala University, PhD in 2013 from Karolinska Institutet. Swedish Grand Prize for Journalism 2017, designated Enlightener of the Year by the Swedish Science and Popular Enlightenment Association in 2017. Appointed Democracy Ambassador by the Swedish government in 2018. Author of the books Larmrapporten [The Alarm Report] (2017) and Sant, falskt or mittemellan? [True, False or Somewhere In-between?] (2018).
Free time: Spend a lot of time with my family – husband and two children who are 8 and 10 years old, which are wonderful ages. Like to walk and exercise, read books – both non-fiction and novels. Listen to podcasts and music a lot.
Reading right now: Karin Smirnoff’s novel “Jag for ner till bror”, which is incredibly good.
Hidden talent: Very good at jigsaw puzzles. And I have a curved thumb, but that isn’t very useful.
People I am inspired by: I can be fascinated by Donald Trump but also of course Greta Thunberg, who is also a person with an enormous impact. They are poles apart, but both are extremely interesting to study. Greta is so genuine with zero self-interest and is driven to do what is right. On the other hand, Trump breaks all of the rules and neglects all standards, but still managed to be the most powerful person in the world.
My driving force: To begin with, I was a little angry and frustrated at how much disinformation is spread and how the media was unnecessarily sensationalist, and that science was never reported on in a reasonable manner. Now that I have gained my own platform to speak, my driving force is to become a better writer and communicator. I want to get better at reaching out with knowledge.
Favourite places in Uppsala: I love the new and old Kyrkogården cemeteries, Hågadalen and Flogsta. The cathedral is also a wonderful place – and standing by Uppsala Castle and looking down on the Botanical Gardens. What a lovely view!
Favourite student nation: Snerikes.