Instead of doing research in the laboratory, chemist Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim explains science. In an interview with the star reveal.
They come from research. Where did the drive come from to want to make scientific topics understandable for laypeople?
dr Mai Thi Nguyen Kim: I have done research in a biomedical field – at the deepest basic research. My focus was on “drug delivery systems”, i.e. how drugs can be effectively delivered to their destination in the body. It has always been my motivation to work on something that could be useful to people and maybe also used in medicine. But I realized that communicating science and scientific processes is just as important as the research itself.
Why is it so important?
The best example is the Corona vaccine. All the work in the lab is only worthwhile if people accept it, accept it and understand it. The vaccine will only work if many people inject it. If they don’t do it because of a lack of understanding or misinformation, then the application from the laboratory cannot help people at all. Of course, this is not the only case – there are countless other examples.
You are also considered a cool nerd. The line between the old image of serious science and the presentation on modern media can be narrow. Did you have role models?
I started a hobby youtube channel alongside my PhD. At that time I was living in Boston, USA, to do research there. There is much more science content in English-speaking countries. The USA is always one step ahead of Germany in the media sector. In terms of image and cliché, a lot has already been broken. It was kind of an inspiration. But: I’m just myself. People sense that I’m very interested in science and understand what I’m talking about. And we scientists are not like in the series “The Big Bang Theory”.
During the corona pandemic, you became a corona explainer for many people. What has changed for you as a result?
On the one hand, the level of attention was great because I only do my job to educate as many people as possible about science. On the other hand, it was also overwhelming – by that I also mean positive feedback.
What I also noticed strongly was the ever-increasing mix-up between politics and science. There were very heated discussions. I was more used to the fact that science is sometimes complicated, but a very unexcited field. You could get lost in details and complexities. But when you’re in the spotlight, it’s more difficult and sometimes there’s not enough time to deal with a topic very intensively. At the same time, it also made my work very exciting.
You are very active on social media – only on . In your opinion, is it beneficial for the scientific debate to use such channels?
I think it’s important to use social media. All media professionals are in a battle for attention. Of course, I want as many people as possible to be able to see my content – and social media is important for that. I would like to spread science and scientific enlightenment like a plague. And whether I explain scientific content on Instagram, in a book or on TV, the facts are correct. Even on social media, nobody can change the content of the post.
Anyone who educates about science on social media can also become the target of hate. Just recently, there was a lot of discussion about hatred on the internet after the suicide of doctor Lisa Maria Kellermayr. Some scientists have also withdrawn from social networks. How do you view hate online?
I find it very alarming and very concerned.
How do you deal with the hate yourself?
I have a very good team and a lot of protection from the broadcaster and the publisher. I have a real firewall, so to speak. I can do my work in peace and hide the hate.
Not everyone has such a team…
Yes, most people don’t have the luxury of such an infrastructure. I find it very sad, but also understandable, that scientists are withdrawing from the public eye. But there are also those on Twitter who have considered withdrawing, but have decided against it. You want to clarify further. The keyword civil courage was mentioned in this context. I have a lot of respect for everyone who communicates science to the public. But it shouldn’t have anything to do with civil courage, that’s the flaw in the system.
What would have to change?
We need a lot more protection. That is not lived freedom of expression if you can educate yourself about vaccines if you want. But the scientists who do it are threatened. That will not do. Hatred should not be allowed free rein. At the moment this means that the moderate, the reasonable voices are withdrawing – this is a big problem for democracy.
Many conspiracy stories have emerged, especially in the wake of the crisis. Have you ever been to the point where you despair of humanity?
Conspiracy stories are not new to me. Interestingly, they have little to do with intelligence and much more to do with emotions. I would never expect my videos or content to reach someone deep into conspiracy narratives. Facts won’t get you very far. But: Nobody was born as a conspiracy ideologist. Radicalization has taken place. Every day I think that maybe someone is caught by scientific information at a point where he or she is still amenable to facts and arguments.
Was there anything about the pandemic that you didn’t expect?
I will never understand how anyone can refuse to put on a mask to protect themselves and others. Especially in the beginning, when there was no vaccine or testing. I also remember the moment when it became clear that older people are more likely to be affected by severe courses. One could almost hear a sigh of relief or a sigh of relief that ran through the country. With my Vietnamese roots, that was a real culture shock for me – in Asia, older people are just as respected as younger people, if not a little more.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for science journalism today?
Science journalists are faced with the classic problem of correctly explaining a highly complex scientific topic, for example in a 30-minute broadcast format.
The whole new challenge I perceive is to get people to differentiate. Science is neither dogmatic nor says that it is so and only so. But it’s also not a philosophical take like “We know that we know nothing”, meaning that any insight could be wrong again tomorrow.
Science is neither of these extremes. It takes place on the spectrum in between: there is reliable scientific knowledge about how climate change is man-made, but there are also many areas where there are still many unanswered question marks. There, science reaches its limits and only finds a lowest common denominator. Science cannot prescribe right or wrong here, it is then the task of society to evaluate the findings morally or politically. I miss that willingness.
In the new season “MaiThink X” the range of topics is very wide. Which topics are important to you and why?
We always make sure to have a broad potpourri to show that science can be found in all sorts of everyday areas. Science is socially and politically relevant. My core is always the scientific methods – i.e. conveying how science works. Even laypeople should understand when it is good science, which studies they can trust and which not. For example, consumers should be able to see for themselves whether an advertising message on cosmetics such as “Study shows that this cream reduces wrinkles by 24 percent” is serious or just purely cosmetic.