I was really interested in #science, because it had the power to explain things, especially things that I saw in everyday life, like: “Why does ice float?” All of that basic chemistry stuff. @labmuffin #ScienceChampions #CelebrateScience
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I've always been really diligent about having accurate information. But the tricky bit is making it more readable for people without a scientific background. @labmuffin #ScienceChampions #CelebrateScience
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Jayshree: 88% of people we surveyed say it’s important for everyone to have basic scientific knowledge. But 85% also say they wish they knew more about science in general. How can we make science more accessible? We’ll ask a PhD-level chemist (who happens to be a beauty blogger!) on this episode of Science Champions.
Welcome to Science Champions, I’m your host, Jayshree Seth, chief science advocate at 3M.
Most people probably don’t think a lot about the research and development that goes into their household products. From cleaning sprays to handsoap to shampoo, lotion, and face wash, every item under your bathroom sink has years of science behind it.
I tend to think about that scientific background more than most people — after all, it’s part of what I do at 3M. And I think exploring the science of these common commercial products is a great way to engage and inform the public.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. My guest this episode is already creating fun and informative blog posts and videos, all about the science of your morning beauty routine.
Dr. Michelle Wong has a PhD in chemistry. She’s a science educator and content creator at Lab Muffin Beauty Science. Michelle, thank you so much for joining me.
Michelle: Thank you for having me.
Jayshree: What sparked your interest in science? How did you get started?
Michelle: So I think when I was a kid, I was a massive nerd, of course. And I read a lot of books. And a lot of them were about science. And my parents bought me lots of books. One series that I was really into was "Horrible Histories." And they also came out with, like, a satellite series, which is "Horrible Science." And I got really interested in the one about chemistry.
When I was a kid, I also had lots of really good teachers in science, which I think contributed massively to my interest in science. So I had some really good high school teachers, especially. And I think I was really interested in science because it had the power to explain things, especially things that I saw in everyday life, like, why does ice float, and all of that basic chemistry stuff.
Jayshree: What was it about chemistry, in particular, that caught your attention?
Michelle: I think chemistry is just very accessible. And it's also, I think, partly, just how it's taught in high school. So biology is always a bit piecemeal because it's, I guess, the nature of biology, like there's plant biology, human biology, it's all quite separate. And you don't really see how everything comes together until a bit later on. And for physics in high school, I wish I really was more interested in physics because I think, again, it's just the way it's taught.
The way it was taught to me was, "Here are some formulas, just plug in these numbers, do a million questions on formulas." You don't really need to understand the formula, you just need to be able to, like get out the solution. And it's really disappointing because once you get to, like, later high school and uni level, that's where all the really interesting physics comes along. And because I sort of just missed physics at the beginning, I think I missed out on a lot of that. And that's just a bit unfortunate.
Jayshree: I suppose chemistry has both the academic and the hands-on component. You study the structure of molecules, but then you can also combine two chemicals and make interesting explosions, right?
Michelle: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, all the pretty colors and stuff, they come out very early on in high school. When you get later on in chemistry, it's like all you get is white and yellow. But early on, you get the pretty stuff.
Jayshree: You mean you don’t still get to make, say, that giant foam snake that expands out of a test tube?
Michelle: Oh, yeah. Well, I do now because I'm in education. But when you get into research, yeah, it's not quite that exciting. So chemistry is very good at marketing itself from a very early level.
Jayshree: For sure. So how do you go from someone who's sitting in a high school class interested in chemistry to someone who is actually a PhD-holding scientist?
Michelle: Sure. So when I was in high school, I was actually more interested in more humanity subjects like history and English and drama. But I did do a bit of chemistry. So the high school I went to had an Olympiad program. And when you're in high school, like, you don't really care that much about chemistry. So I really just went to these Olympiad sessions because it was at lunchtime, and my friends went, and so it was more like a social event. But it did sort of plant a seed in me.
And so when I went to uni, there was a lot of pressure to do medicine or law because I am Asian, and my parents are, like, traditional Asian parents who want me to have a nice, solid, safe career. So I knew that I didn't really want to do medicine, so I didn't really see myself in medicine. So I ended up doing law and science. In Australia, it's like a combined degree. So I started studying that because I felt like it was a good balance of, like, my science interests and my more humanities interests.
And then when I went to Uni, I really enjoyed both but then I started working in a law firm and I hated it. So it was just like part-time uni job. So yeah, there were just lots of things that I didn't like about the whole corporate environment. So I worked really hard. But I felt, like, all of it, I had a really tiny impact, like, a lot of the work just ended up being filed away and never see the light of day. There were also some, like, ethically dubious things. So my law firm was working with, like, a tobacco company. And on top of all of this, like, standard corporate stuff, I had to wake up really early, and I had to deal with a rush hour commute. And it was just like, I can't wake up early. So I think, like, that lifestyle is for some people, but it definitely wasn't for me.
So at the end of my undergrad, we have an option in Australia to do what's called an honors year. And so it's like a one year, basically like a mini PhD project. And it acts as an alternative to doing a two-year masters. So it's sort of like a no-brainer. So I didn't my honors in chemistry, and I put law on hold. I did really well in my honors year, so I got the university medal. And I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. So I was like, "Oh, this is going quite well. I'll just keep going." And so I just stuck with the same project and did a PhD.
And then at the end of my PhD, I had the very common PhD student dilemma where I still didn't know what I wanted to do with my life.
So one thing I did really enjoy when I was in uni was teaching. But the problem with that is that there just aren't very many teaching positions at Uni that are teaching-only. So there's like a tutoring college in Sydney where a lot of PhD students teach. And so I started teaching there. And then that turned into a fulltime job.
Jayshree: Makes sense! So, when did Lab Muffin Beauty Science come about?
Michelle: So I started writing my blog when I was doing my PhD. So I started trying to buy beauty products when I was in my PhD. And because, like, you're not on a very big salary during your PhD, you're on a pretty stingy scholarship. Like, you do a lot of research before you buy, like, anything that's even $5. So I started looking into what I should buy. And there were lots of really questionable claims. So I started researching them all. This was back in, like, 2011. I found out that there wasn't that much stuff online, and there were think tons and tons of myths everywhere.
So I had to look up textbooks and peer-reviewed journal articles. And it was, like, really technical. And I started thinking how would someone without a science background, like, most of the population who has less science education than me, how are they gonna deal with this? Like, there's just no way you could handle parsing that much info. So I started a blog to partly keep track of what I found because I was finding it hard to keep track of everything, and also to try to combat some of these myths online. So it was sort of, like, if you can't beat them, join them, and use their tools against them in a way.
Jayshree: Would you say the mission is to bust myths, or is it more to get people interested in science? Maybe a little bit of both?
Michelle: I think it's a bit of both. So I think my original mission statement was more to just explain the science behind different beauty products in a simple way, so you could see what was true and what wasn't. But I think that just turns into naturally myth busting.
Jayshree: I love how your blog posts are very scientifically grounded and informative, but at the same time understandable for non-scientists. Do you consciously work to find that sweet spot, or does it come naturally?
Michelle: I think it's a really tricky balance. And I'm quite...what's the word? I've always been really diligent about having accurate information. But I think the tricky bit is, yeah, the bit where you're trying to make it more readable and understandable for people without a scientific background. And I think I find that really satisfying, being able to explain something to someone who didn't think they would ever understand it. So it's, like, a really interesting challenge. And it's really satisfying when it works.
So when I was a kid, I wasn't really naturally that good at science. I was much more into English and that sort of thing. And so I think I already have, like, a natural empathy for people who find all this stuff quite overwhelming. So I think a lot of it does come from empathy, like, you have to understand where your audience is coming from. And I think from my teaching background, that also helps a lot because I have a lot of interaction with students, so people who aren't that far along in their scientific understanding. And I think also teaching just really expands your repertoire of how to explain things and, like, how to teach complex topics, and how to find analogies, and that sort of thing.
Jayshree: That makes sense. I can see how this subject matter is a good way to pull people in, and then you can explain some of these concepts to them. Is there any way that you check for understanding with your audience? Do you keep an eye on your comments, or is it just having that level of empathy that guides you?
Michelle: I think it's a mix of both, yeah. So I think having that audience feedback in real-time is really useful. So I think one of the things with, like, I guess traditional media is that you don't really have that sort of audience interaction. But if you're on Instagram, if you're on YouTube, if you have a blog, there's always a comment section. And a lot of people are very quick. If you develop that sort of, like, I guess, relationship with your audience, they're very quick to give you feedback, like, they're like, "I love this video, but I don't understand what you just said about this particular topic. Can you expand it more?" And so, yeah, you internalize that and you know next time. You need to break that sort of thing down much, much more.
Jayshree: Comparing video and blog posts, do you think one of them is more effective than the other? Is one of them more fun to do than the other?
Michelle: I think just because I've written blog posts for so much longer, video is, like, new, and shiny, and exciting for me. So I think it is a bit more fun to do videos. Although it is so much more time consuming, I found. But I think I mostly started making videos because I felt like the blog format was limited in terms of what I could do. So when you teach to, like, a live audience, you move your hands a lot. You can animate things by just, like, picking them up and moving them. But you can't really do that in a blog post. And to make an animation is about the same amount of effort as making a full video. So that's sort of how the natural progression went. And I think, just partly because data is so much cheaper now than it was in 2011, people just watch YouTube, they listen to podcasts in the background of things. And so I think it has the potential to reach a much bigger audience.
Jayshree: It seems like a lot of the misconceptions you’re addressing happen because of the way the news covers scientific research. How do you think the media could improve science reporting?
Michelle: I don't think there's much of a shortcut for this. I think really, they just need to hire people who have a science background who can actually engage with, like, the primary source material, whether it's like peer-reviewed articles or talking to the scientists who do the actual research. Like, I think science literacy, it's not really something that you can just quickly fix. I think it comes from, like, education and stuff where, like, just, like, funding for science, literacy and full critical thinking education.
Jayshree: How would you recommend that adults learn more about science once they're out of school?
Michelle: Definitely. I think, especially in the last five years or so, there's just been so many free online resources for science coming out. So things like on YouTube, there's just, like, high school and above level stuff, like from Crash Course, from Khan Academy. There's also a lot of free online university courses from places like Coursera. I think one of the places that people tend to go to is they go straight to peer-reviewed journals and, like, Google Scholar, or PubMed. But I don't think that's a really good approach because it's like, when you get to that sort of academic level, it's really piecemeal. And you don't really have the necessary background to understand what they're saying, and things like statistics. So I think it's much better to start with, yeah, YouTube and free online education.
Jayshree: There is a trap there, though, with YouTube. You can easily get into a rabbit hole of unreliable sources and end up thinking the earth is flat or the moon landing was faked. Do you have any advice for how to evaluate sources, how to tell if something is worth paying attention to?
Michelle: I think it's hard to have any shortcuts for evaluating sources. So I think it is, like, a lot of practice. So you have to develop, like, a skeptical thinking mindset, you have to get used to source evaluation. So there's a lot of resources for skeptics, or skeptical thinking online as well. And it tends to be psychology courses I found. And there's also some free critical thinking courses as well online, Coursera and stuff. And so it covers lots of things like cognitive biases. So I think learning about cognitive biases really helps and looking for things like questioning the motivation of the sources, and looking for a corroborative information, and seeing if they cite their sources.
Jayshree: Imagine for a second that YOU could be that source, that you could grab everyone by the lapels and say, “This is what you need to know about science.” What would you tell them?
Michelle: Science isn't that complicated. Anyone can understand it. I think that would be it.
Jayshree: That is perfect. So many people feel intimidated by science and that stops them before they get started. And that’s a shame because there are so many rewards to having a scientific mindset. Speaking of which, is there anything that you've learned through your scientific exploration that has surprised you?
Michelle: Probably just the fact that people are actually interested in science. Like, there are a lot of people out there who are really into science, or they would be if they had the right teachers and stuff, and the right resources. Like, the number of people who've written to me saying, "Oh, I wish I did more chemistry in high school," is, like, ridiculous. And, like, the fact that I have an audience at all, like, when I first started, I thought I would have, like, a tiny core of, like, 100 people who would be interested at all. But now it's like, I think my Instagram's on, like, almost 80,000, which is just amazing.
Jayshree: That’s wonderful, and the fact so many people are eager to learn gives me hope for the future. Michelle, thanks so much for joining me today.
Michelle: Thanks so much. It was really nice talking to you.
Jayshree: The vast majority of adults know that scientific knowledge is important. That’s good news, to be sure. But we still have some work to do. We need to show people that you don’t have to be a genius to learn about science. All you need to be a scientist is curiosity, a willingness to learn, and the will to seek out reputable, knowledgeable sources. If you’re listening to this podcast, you’re already on the right track.
Thanks for listening to Science Champions. For more in-depth analysis of the current state of science, join us at 3m.com/scienceindex. And make sure to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or anywhere you listen to podcasts.