Dr. Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim is probably the best-known German science communicator. This chemist with a Ph.D. reaches 1.3 million subscribers with her YouTube channel maiLab. She is also a television presenter (with her own show starting in autumn) and bestselling author. She has received many awards, including the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany as well as the GDCh Prize for Journalists and Writers.
To mark the occasion, Dr. Christian Remenyi of Nachrichten aus der Chemie and Dr. Vera Koester of ChemistryViews met with her. No one explains science as soberly while also being as cool and passionate as Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim.
With your YouTube channel maiLab, you reach an audience of millions. Did you have role models?
I do not have role models in the sense of a program or a channel, but I do have an aspiration. Namely, not only to be well received by the lay public but also to have my work appreciated by scientists. The recognition from the chemistry community—for example, now with the GDCh prize for journalists—means a lot to me. I want to do my work in such a way that my former doctoral supervisor does not have to think “uh-oh” but is proud.
With maiLab, do you primarily want to promote scientific—and thus independent—thinking, or is it enough if the message is simply believed?
It is probably a reality that many people simply trust me, something along the lines of: If that is what Mai says or what was said on maiLab, or if something is written in my books, then it is true. This gives me great responsibility.
But in fact, I do not just want to say, “That’s how it is.” Rather, I attach importance to methods and to explaining how scientific results are obtained. I want to communicate what the difference is between gut feeling, clues, and evidence. I try to teach people how to know which questions to ask or which questions are still open and to question critically for themselves.
There is always a description with a listing of all sources under the maiLab videos. Can laypeople really do anything with it?
To a limited extent. It starts with the fact that I work with original scientific literature. Some laypeople run into practical problems: A lot of it is behind a paywall or in English. To understand some things, you need a scientific education. The most valuable service I offer with my editorial team of scientists and science communicators is therefore to be a bridge between experts and laypeople. That is the work that we can do, full time, as science journalists, and that’s why in the end it boils down to trust.
But a list of sources alone says nothing. Many conspiracy theorists add pages and pages of literature references …
… because they know precisely that the layperson cannot check that. They use scientific terms, and if you look closely, you have to say they are wrong. And they get away with it because knowledge about chemistry and natural sciences is considered secondary even in school and is not included later in general education.
All three of us are chemists, so it is quite normal for us to hear, “Oh, really, I hated chemistry at school and immediately dropped it as soon as I could.” That is all well and good, but someone who considers themselves an intellectual would not admit that they have no idea about politics or history. That is why part of my job is to teach the basics. In addition to media and source literacy, you need a bit of general scientific education.
However, journalists also lack this source literacy. This is how the problem of false equivalency arises, i.e., that the most divergent view on each topic appears in the public discourse.
False equivalency is a major problem in the media’s communication of science. In a talk show, for example, the viewer sees one scientist representing a consensus based on evidence. At the same time, another person holds an opinion, which is a perfectly legitimate thing to do, but it is based on weaker evidence or even no evidence at all. So the evidence itself would have to be discussed and the statements would have to be classified as substantiated or not, but there is no room for that in a talk show.
It is not about the fact that scientists are not allowed to have different opinions. Of course, they are allowed to, but the point is that personal opinions in science are clearly subordinate to evidence. And I think that journalists often do not realize that this is not about asking for opinions, but rather, when I invite a scientist to speak, it is not because of their personal stance, but to find out what the science says, which actually means nothing other than what is currently the strongest evidence.
You are a science journalist with influence, so you almost come across as an expert in the public’s perception. How do you see that?
That is fundamentally not good. With some interview requests, I think, “Wow, I am obviously the expert on everything here.” That is nonsense, of course. You have to handle it very responsibly. If you reach a stage where you have a doctorate or a professorial title or anything with the label “scientist,” people trust you very much as an authority. I am a scientist at heart, but in my work I see myself as a science journalist.
Aren’t there similar approaches between the two?
There are parallels. Good journalism also has to provide evidence and is based on evidence. In journalism, there is the “four-eyes” principle of editorial review; in science, there is peer review. If we scientists and science journalists really always do our job correctly and according to principle, then we are on the same side, namely, on the side of the evidence. Then, at most, it is a matter of opinions where there are uncertainties. I draw a line for myself: I am an expert in science communication, not in any science topic.
To what extent should scientists become experts in science communication? Can and should they explain their science in a way that everyone understands the principles?
This is a multifaceted issue. First, science communication is as important as the research itself. This is true even for basic research, and even more so when socially relevant innovations can emerge from the science.
As a scientist, I did research on drug delivery and something like lipid envelopes, at that time for siRNA. Now, mRNA is totally relevant. But what is the point if I develop a great lipid envelope and people do not want to have it injected into their arms?
So science communication is very important. Nevertheless, it does not make sense to force every scientist to become an expert communicator.
When you go out in public, a scientist should have exactly the same demands on themselves as, say, at a scientific conference. If I go to a conference and talk garbage there, then that will be criticized. I have to retract a paper if it is wrong. Science has built-in self-correction, but this has not yet been extended to science communication. As soon as someone goes on TV, for example, it is freedom of expression, and accountability ends.
The contributions in the maiLab channel also allow for ambiguity. I am thinking here of the videos on glyphosate and antidepressants.
Yes, from a dramaturgical point of view, both are not satisfying because they do not give clear answers. You cannot say in the end whether antidepressants help or not, or whether glyphosate is bad or not. Nevertheless, we have made detailed videos on this to show why the uncertainty exists, so that laypeople are not presented with the typical conspiracy theory: Some say this, and others say that, because this one is paid by that one and that one is paid by the other one. But not everything is easy to resolve. For example, do a controlled study with severely depressed people. You get into a massive ethical dilemma if you do not treat severely depressed people in the control group. That is why the studies in this area are weak. That can and must be explained.
Apart from COVID-19 and climate change, what are the particularly hot topics right now?
Green genetic engineering. The question of how we will feed ourselves sustainably is on the agenda, precisely because this could also become an election issue. Also: artificial intelligence, data science, and how algorithms influence our interactions.
However, the team and I cannot wait to get back to classic science topics, including chemistry, after COVID-19 subsides.
Are the 1.3 million subscribers to maiLab different people to those who read the science section of the Sunday paper?
Definitely. That is primarily due to the format (i.e., the YouTube platform) and less fundamentally to age. That is actually a larger misunderstanding: Among public broadcasters, I am one of the youngest, and many people think I reach 18-year-olds because I seem young and hip and fresh to them. But, seriously, I am in my early 30s now, and when I meet 18-year-olds, they address me in a formal manner. When we were 18 and saw people in their early 30s, we did not think they were our buddies either.
What connects the different channels in science communication?
The content. I imagine science communication to be like an onion: Original scientific literature is on the inside and Instagram or TikTok, for example, on the outside. You have to pick people up somewhere and then draw them further into the onion. That is why every layer of the onion has its place, and all of them are needed.
Do you sometimes miss the very inside of the onion, the laboratory?
Yes, but then my husband and friends tell me that I am romanticizing it. They are probably right. After two weeks, I would probably want to switch again.
How important is it to be your own brand as a science communicator?
That definitely makes it easier. When it comes to scientific content, it is always the content that counts; the speakers are just the packaging. But that is only apparently superficial. It determines whether and how strongly people feel addressed. For example, I automatically appeal to more girls and women than other science channels with male presenters.
maiLab consists of a team of four, including you, three scientists with doctorates. How long does it take to research and complete a video?
The research and the script take the most time. Of course, we r
esearch much more than ends up in the script. The script itself lasts about 20 minutes; the information density is high, and the editing on YouTube follows the motto, “If it was too fast, just rewind and watch it again.”
In addition to reading studies, our research also includes logging into Facebook groups to see what is being written and what disinformation is circulating. We are in such a bubble of natural scientists and often do not know what misconceptions are floating around outside of it.
The research sometimes takes weeks to months for a given topic. A lot of things overlap; we work on several topics in parallel. Shooting is unspectacular: camera, tripod, not much has changed over the years. Maybe today we have better equipment for lighting, a better camera, better sound. I do the production alone at home. It is exhausting but practical.
Essential to maiLab is the interaction with its subscribers. A few weeks ago, however, you turned to your viewers with the words “We need to talk” because trolls and hate speech were taking over in the comments. What is the situation right now?
It’s so extreme. Before COVID-19, I told everyone worried about going public for these reasons not to worry as science is a welcoming place in this sense. I have always used the maiLab community as a model community to show how great, constructive, and respectful—and critical—the commentators are. Really deep discussions take place.
And has that changed?
The core is still the same but sometimes buried under waves of negativity. Our videos are posted in Telegram groups, and that generates a concerted dislike and attacks of nasty comments. These people are not interested in discourse. They just want to spread hate, and it is obvious that they do so without watching the videos properly. However, that’s when the comments section can become temporarily unusable.
In the last few years, the community has more or less managed itself. We hardly had to block anyone or delete comments—not least because I don’t really care about personal insults. But now we have to intervene by blocking or delete comments to give the community back space for factual exchange.
Has it gotten better?
We can, as I said, attribute this hate. It comes partly from these concerted attacks and is spread by a small group that is mobile, that is loud, and has the time for it. But they are a minority. The big part, those million-plus subscribers, are silent viewers. And many of them reached out after watching the video. That was beautiful and touching that so many just came forward to back us up and to say, “Here we are, but we’re normally silent.”
Do you actually remember everything you once said on YouTube or does the private Mai also sometimes say, “I’m no longer sure of that”?
You can actually remember things much better if you have had to explain them—maybe you were already aware of that. Even at school, I always liked to tutor my friends because it helped me to understand things better myself.
During my doctoral thesis, non-chemist friends often came and asked me everyday questions that had something remotely to do with science. Of course, you do not always know the answers, especially because you might be specializing in one area of research. Now I am much closer to that broader picture and I know a lot of useful things. But, of course, I also forget things and then I look up my own books or watch my own videos. Then I am glad that I have such neat references attached so I can look things up again if necessary.
Thank you very much for the interview.
Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim, born in Heppenheim, Germany, in 1987, studied chemistry at the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany, and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, MA, USA. In 2012, she moved to RWTH Aachen University, Germany, to pursue her Ph.D. She spent a research year at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA, and at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research, Potsdam-Golm, Germany, and received her Ph.D. in 2017 from the University of Potsdam, Germany, with a thesis on polyurethane-based physical hydrogels.
In 2015, Nguyen-Kim started the YouTube channel “The Secret Life of Scientists” to challenge stereotypes about (natural) scientists and to communicate science topics to a young audience. In 2016, her YouTube channel “schönschlau” went online, produced by funk, a joint service of the public-service television broadcaster ARD and ZDF for teenagers and young adults. In 2018, it was renamed “maiLab”. Currently, it has 1.31M subscribers.
The interview was conducted in German and has been published in German as:
- Es geht nicht darum, Meinungen abzufragen,
Christian Remenyi, Vera Koester, Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim,
Nachr. Chem. 2021.
Video of the interview (German with English subtitles)
Selected Awards of Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim
- 2021 Grimme-Preis for journalistic contributions on COVID-19
- 2020 Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany
- 2020 GDCh Prize for Journalists and Writers
- 2018 Georg von Holtzbrinck Prize for Science Journalism
- Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim, Komisch, alles chemisch!, Droemer Verlag, Munich, Germany 2019. ISBN-13: 978-3-426-27767-6
in English: Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim, Chemistry for Breakfast: The Amazing Science of Everyday Life, Greystone Books 2021. ISBN-13: 978-1771647489
- Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim, Die kleinste gemeinsame Wirklichkeit: Wahr, falsch, plausibel – die größten Streitfragen wissenschaftlich geprüft, Droemer Verlag, Munich 2021. ISBN-13: 978-3426278222