Scientists on Social Media: Darrion Nguyen (aka lab_shenanigans)

When TikTok and science collide.
Interview
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Darrion Nguyen has always loved making short videos. Whilst working late at night as a research technician at Baylor College of Medicine, he started recording fun clips for his friends about science and working in the lab, and posting them on Facebook and TikTok under the handle lab_shenanigans. To Darrion's surprise the videos soon gained a mass following, receiving more than 14 million likes on TikTok alone, and he now has over 700K followers across TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Here we talk to Darrion about what it feels like to be reaching so many people and how he thinks social media is changing science communication.

Image credit: Darrion Nguyen

How would you describe the type of content you make?

I make short videos explaining biological concepts using audio clips that are trending on social media which are usually from TV shows or movies. For example, if a clip contains the word ‘splitting’, this will make me think of mitosis and I’ll then create a short video of me imitating the biological process in a way that matches the audio. Sometimes I’ll apply the audio to relatable scenarios in the lab, like messing up my first PCR experiment, or how I imagine different lab members would respond to a fire alarm or taking a group photo.

What's the most popular video you've posted?

The video is based around an audio clip from ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians’, where Kim enters an apartment and starts fighting with her sister and swinging her purse at her. When I heard the audio, it made me think of a lysosome attacking something entering the cell. So, one day in the lab whilst I was waiting for my gel to run, I quickly made a video of me pretending to be a lysosome hitting a foreign bacterium with my backpack. It was one of the first videos I ever posted and I really didn’t expect anything from it – I just made it for my own enjoyment because I thought it was funny. But over the next few weeks it started racking up views, and now has over 8 million!

How does it feel to reach so many people?

It is mind blowing. I’m still in a state of denial and think most of these views must be bots – I just can’t believe this many people enjoy my content. But it reassures me that I’m doing the right thing and need to follow my gut.

What has the response to your TikTok fame been like?

When I’m in the lab and in ‘scientist mode’, I’m very reserved and just focus on my experiments. So, when my coworkers found my TikTok, they were very surprised to see this energetic, goofy side of me. I was really nervous about my PI finding out, as I didn’t want her to think that I was running around making silly videos all day when I should be working. But she was so encouraging and told me: “we need people like you to show the public how fun science can be”.

Has gaining such a big following caused you to change the type of content you create?

I definitely feel more responsibility to use my platform for good. I want to continue making videos of me dancing and goofing around, but make the content more educational, especially for non-scientists. I enjoy breaking down complex scientific topics and finding new ways to convey them in just a few seconds, and hope people can see how much fun I’m having making these videos.

How do you think social media is changing science communication?

I think science communication used to be a bit of an echo chamber that only reached other scientists or STEM students. Even on social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, it can be difficult to get people outside your immediate audience to see your content. But I think TikTok is changing that because unlike other platforms it doesn’t just show your videos to your followers, but to a whole range of people who may have never come across your content before. Other social media platforms, including Instagram and YouTube, have started following suit and are changing their algorithms. I hope this change will help scientific content on social media and elsewhere reach a much broader audience.

TikTok is known to have a much younger audience than other social media platforms. Were you surprised that so many young people were interested in scientific content?

Definitely! I thought surely the last thing kids want to do when they come home from school and go on social media is to learn more. But a lot of young people actually really like the educational content I post and will often say things like, “wow, I learned so much from that six-second video.” Someone actually came up to me at a club once (while I was dancing away to ABBA) and told me I had helped them pass their biochemistry course. Receiving comments like these has made me realize what a difference I can make, and it really inspires me to just keep having fun producing more content like this online.

Who are some of your favorite scientists to follow on social media?

I really look up to science.sam (aka Samantha Yammine), who is doing a phenomenal job of tackling disinformation around COVID-19, and Dr.Noc (Morgan McSweeney) who also makes great TikTok videos about coronavirus. Then I love ASAPscience (Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown) and TheSpaceGal (Emily Calandrelli). Also, drdre4000 (Andre Korrie), an African American gay PI who posts really relatable content, and Nick Uhas who posts crazy DIY home experiments.

What’s next for you?

I recently left my role as a research technician so I can focus more time on making content and growing my lab_shenanigans account. At the moment I’m experimenting with creating longer videos for YouTube and have also started selling my own merchandise. In the long term, I would love to be on TV talking about science – my dream is to have my own TV show like Bill Nye in the 1990s.