By John Zhu
In all the years she has spent studying science, neurobiology Ph.D. candidate Gwenaëlle Thomas hasn’t met many scientists who looked like her or talked like her. She was 21 before she met a Black neuroscientist, and there were many cultural references that she was unfamiliar with in seminars and lectures.
So when she decided to start her own YouTube channel to talk about science, Thomas knew the audience she wanted to speak to.
“Unfortunately, Black people are left out of the conversation a lot when it comes to science and medicine,” Thomas said. “Of course, Blackness is not a monolith. I am not assuming everyone has the same experiences as me. However, I want to discuss science in a way that will resonate with my friends, family, and people from my neighborhood.”
The idea of starting a science communication YouTube channel had been brewing in her mind for a while. Thomas made such a habit of correcting social media misinformation about science that her friends called her a misinformation mythbuster. As COVID-19 began to dominate the news, she sat down after lab one day and made a series of Instagram videos where she explained the science behind the coronavirus headlines.
“It was my most viewed story in the eight years I've been on Instagram,” Thomas said. “People said I should create a YouTube channel to explain different science topics. So here we are.”
Like most members of the Duke community, Thomas was home during the days immediately after Duke greatly curtailed campus activity to help contain the spread of COVID-19. With some extra time on her hands, she decided to take the plunge into YouTube, creating a channel called getSTEM (“get” being her initials).
Her first video was, naturally, about COVID-19. From her living room, she delivered easy-to-understand explanations about the coronavirus, its spread, and how to stay safe during the pandemic, sprinkling in a liberal helping of humor, memes, gifs, reaction videos, and pop culture along the way.
“Honestly, viruses are some broke boys. They cannot feed themselves…”
— Gwenaëlle Thomas explaining viruses in her first YouTube video about COVID-19
It was a big step for Thomas. She had never edited a video or used a ring light, but learning those things was the fun part. The biggest challenge was overcoming her nerves and imposter syndrome.
“Social media movements like #ThisIsWhatAScientistLooksLike or #BlackAndSTEM have amplified the voices of other marginalized scientists and definitely have made me more confident,” Thomas said. “But I still worried about putting myself out there and someone judging my accent, appearance, or style and making assumptions about my character and intellect.”
In fact, the video that she published was a remake. She showed her initial version to a couple friends and fellow graduate students, and they told her she wasn’t being herself. At their encouragement, Thomas filmed a new, more relaxed version.
Now that she has taken the leap, Thomas said she hopes to make three to four videos a month, covering topics that run the gamut from genealogy testing to electric vehicles. As she tackles those topics, she also wants to feature scientists, past and present, from marginalized backgrounds.
“I’m really excited to see where these goes,” said Thomas, who is also a recipient of The Graduate School's Dean's Award for Excellence in Mentoring. “I know my editing and content is only going to get better from here. To anyone else considering starting a personal passion project: Ain’t nothing to it but to do it. We are our biggest critics. Accept there is room for improvement and opportunities to grow.”