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Science Communication

Chemists are finding their place on TikTok

Educators, researchers, and students are coming together to share chemistry demos and talk shop on the wildly popular video app

by Sam Lemonick
February 21, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 8


An image showing the TikTok logo as electrons orbiting a nucleus.
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock

In the video’s opening shot, a man sits at a desk wearing a blue sweater. The text “Me in college” pops up before he adds three lines to an aromatic ring to indicate double bonds. He makes a satisfied sound.

In the next shot, the same man, now in a T-shirt, is labeled “Person sitting next to me,” and he draws a circle to show aromaticity in his ring structure. Cut back to the first guy: “Me being insecure about my benzene rings now.” The camera zooms in on his face as he lip-synchs to a voice saying, “Why yours look like that?”

This is TikTok. The social networking app has been gaining popularity over the past couple of years, accumulating billions of short videos of lip-synching, dance routines, and memes. And now chemists are leaving their stamp too.

The video about chemical structure insecurities was made by Darrion Nguyen (@lab_shenanigans on TikTok), who is a research technician in Houston. He’s one of a small but growing number of people making TikTok videos about chemistry. Some, like Nguyen, make skits or dance routines featuring science concepts. Others are teachers or researchers who favor short lab demonstrations or explanations of basic concepts. Still others use the format to complain about chemistry exams or the travails of graduate student life.

C&EN wanted to find out more about the chemistry community on TikTok, so we installed the app and started scrolling. Creators of chemistry TikTok videos say one reason they use the app is to meet young people where they are. TikTok is definitely where they are: market research firm GlobalWebIndex reported in 2019 that 41% of the app’s estimated 500 million users are between 16 and 24.

Like so many things teenagers do, TikTok can feel alien and intimidating. What are those kids doing in there? Even after we’ve spent a month or two reporting this article, there is still a lot we don’t understand. Still, we invite you to take our hand and let us show you some of what the app has to offer. A warning before we dive in: TikTok is quite addicting.

“I think if you have something really important coming up”—like a grant deadline—“you should not download it,” Evelyn Valdez-Ward, a TikTok user and an ecology and evolutionary biology PhD student at the University of California, Irvine, says with a laugh.

Here are the basics: TikTok features short videos—1 min is the limit, but many are less than 15 s—set to music. The format lends itself to quick jokes and dance routines, easy to remember and easy to copy. That’s TikTok’s real brilliance. Dances and jokes become memes, with users modifying them and elaborating on them. For instance, the audio that Nguyen lip-synched to was created in 2016 and features in more than 36,000 videos, all about different scenarios or topics that make use of the “Why yours look like that?” clip. After you’ve watched enough TikToks, you feel as if you’re in on the joke.

The app’s front page, called the “For You” page, is a scrolling feed of videos that TikTok’s algorithm predicts you’ll like. Users can like, save, or comment on videos, and they can also click to use a video’s audio track to make their own iterations. Hashtags—including #chemistry and #scienceismagic—can guide users to videos too. (A word of caution for kids and parents: TikTok is moderated, but—like other social media networks—it still contains violent, sexual, hateful, and bullying content.)

Nguyen, who was an undergraduate biochemistry and theater and dance major, is one of #chemistry TikTok’s most popular creators, regularly posting videos that get more than a million views. Phil Cook (@chemteacherphil) is in the same league, but he takes a different approach. Cook is a high school chemistry teacher of 20 years now at Culver Academies. His first video, posted last August, is a classic chemistry lab demonstration: a gummy bear bursting into flames as it’s oxidized in a test tube of potassium chlorate.

Cook says after he did the reaction in class, one of his students encouraged him to make an account and post a video of it. “I went away for the weekend and came back to 5,000 or 10,000 followers,” he says. Today he has 1.1 million.

There aren’t a lot of chemistry teachers on TikTok, Cook says, and he thinks his demonstration videos fill a void on the app of reliable, interesting science content. TikTok’s “For You” page means his videos can reach kids who aren’t necessarily interested in science. Still, Cook says he’s not trying to “save” TikTok with chemistry content. He’s just happy to be adding some educational videos.

TikTok users seem to appreciate what he’s doing. On a recent video, which shows a small chunk of sodium exploding in water, commenters asked about the products of the reaction and the difference between elemental sodium and sodium ions. Cook says he tries to answer every question he can, and he finds he’s now asked to explain the chemistry in other users’ videos.

Brandon Piasecki, a chemistry teacher at a central California charter school, also uses TikTok for educational purposes as @mrp_chemistry. His videos are a little less polished than Cook’s—Piasecki says Cook’s videos are a source of inspiration for him—and he’s still experimenting to find his niche. Some videos are demos, and some are quick explanations of chemistry concepts, like Lewis dot structures. He’s also used the app to document experimental procedures for his classes, although he makes sure to save the videos outside TikTok so his students don’t have to use the app. Piasecki says he thinks of the explainers as flash cards: quick, eye catching, a little funny, maybe a little dorky, so students will remember the concepts.

I think everybody should be on TikTok and learning how to use it.
Hailey Levi, undergraduate, University of California, Riverside

Some of the most popular #chemistry TikToks are by high school and college students struggling with the subject. If TikTok is any metric, a lot of students are failing their chemistry classes. Piasecki says he wants to share his love of science on TikTok and encourage students that they can handle the challenge of chemistry and have fun doing it.

Nick Uhas, an actor and TV host, currently holds the title of having created the most-watched #chemistry videos on TikTok. Two are of a massive elephant toothpaste demonstration. Uhas, who didn’t respond to C&EN’s request for an interview, has said it’s the world’s largest demonstration of that reaction. But some have criticized Uhas, whose team members appear to be wearing face shields and Tyvek-type coveralls rather than proper safety equipment like respirators to run the reaction at that scale. In another video, Uhas puts his bare fingers in a solution of supersaturated sodium acetate trihydride.

In fact, many TikToks lack proper personal protective equipment (PPE). In the past, Nguyen has been criticized for not wearing PPE. He says he tries to set a better example now, wearing gloves, a lab coat, and goggles when appropriate, and that he’s hidden some of the videos where he wasn’t.

Goggles aren’t the only change Nguyen has made in his videos. His early content on TikTok and other platforms was “strictly shenanigans,” as Nguyen puts it—ideas that came to him while he was working late in the lab. When his TikToks started to rack up views, he realized the impact and reach he could have, and he’s started to think about how he could make his videos more educational. He says his creations reflect the way he learns: scenarios, often inspired by musical theater, that help him remember science concepts.

He’s also thinking more about representation. Nguyen wants his TikToks to help “show that not all scientists are male and white.”

Hailey Levi started her TikTok, @chaoticallyscience, late at night in the lab too. “Just me goofing in the lab on 2 hours of sleep” is how she puts it. In her first video, she’s lip-synching to Ariana Grande as she poses—sans PPE—with a microscope, an autopipettor, and sample vials. Levi, a senior at the University of California, Riverside, who’s applying to molecular biology PhD programs, says she started making videos to prove to her 13-year-old brother that science and scientists aren’t boring.

She says she has won over her brother, and a bonus has been that he’s learning from her videos. “I’m always keeping in my head, ‘Could he understand it?’ ” she says. She’s taken videos down if he tells her he doesn’t. And some of his friends follow her account now, too.

Levi says using TikTok and other social media has put her in touch with other science communicators, and that’s made her want to keep spreading science knowledge and enthusiasm. In a recent video, she debunks some widespread myths, like “all chemicals are bad,” while dancing to an electronica beat. She sees TikTok as a way to keep communicating science to the public while pursuing her love of research. And she encourages other scientists to do the same. “I think everybody should be on TikTok and learning how to use it,” Levi says. Cook agrees, saying he’d like to see more advanced chemistry on TikTok. And if professors don’t feel confident about making a video, he says, they could ask if their graduate students want to help. “You can use TikTok to your ­advantage.”


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