It was two months before I was set to move to Boston for my PhD, and I had decided that there would never be a better time to create a science YouTube channel. While it might seem like a crazy idea to take on such a huge commitment while doing a PhD, I strongly believe that this unusual hobby has actually made me a better scientist.
I should start from the beginning. Like many of my peers, I had channels like Crash Course and Khan Academy to thank for some amount of my academic success. Whenever I was confused about material from my engineering curriculum, I would look it up on YouTube in the hopes that someone smarter than me might be able to help. Most of the time, I found a video (or several) that answered all of my questions, and I’d be on my way.
One day, I was interested in learning about commonly used artificial intelligence systems. I had just completed a summer research project that focused on using machine learning for medical imaging, and I wanted to see where else machine learning might be used. I wasn’t interested in technical projects but rather wanted to get a broad overview of the field designed for an average person.
As usual, I began by searching for the topic on YouTube. I hit a wall almost immediately. For the first time, I couldn’t find content that answered my questions. I was confused and disappointed, and I didn’t know where else to look. Then, an idea sparked in the back of my mind. What if I created that content myself? After all, I couldn’t be the only one interested in a technology that has increasingly permeated our lives.
When I started, I was still relaxing my summer away, so I had plenty of time to script, film, and edit. Once I started my PhD, however, the quality of my content took a nosedive for about a month while I adjusted to graduate school. Additionally, as many other female YouTubers have experienced, the comments section was not always the kindest place, and particularly nasty comments often weighed heavily on my mind. Although dealing with negative comments isn’t a fun experience, it has helped me with my research: I can now sift through negative feedback for the constructive criticism that will improve my work in the future (although reviewers are not typically as unkind as the people in the comments section). At the same time, I found a community of YouTube Educators (EduTubers) who shared my values and came from interdisciplinary fields; that community has helped me develop new video content at night, just as I develop new scientific hypotheses during the day. Many EduTubers were also graduate students, and we bonded over the consistent progress of our channels when our work in the lab wasn’t going according to plan.
In researching for new videos, I stumbled upon papers in other disciplines that I would never have thought to look at. Although these papers may have seemed irrelevant at first glance, they contained methods that translated well to my work. As I discovered previously unseen research, I also discovered researchers who would go on to be my professional and academic resources. I built relationships and gained mentors that I would not have otherwise.
My YouTube channel has also helped me apply for funding. Science communication has become one of the central components of the average “Broader Impacts” section on NSF grant applications. It offers an avenue to share the (often publicly funded) results of our scientific labor with the rest of the academic community, as well as with the broader public. When I received reviewer feedback on my NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, many of my reviewers were impressed and intrigued by my YouTube channel. While it likely wasn’t the main reason that they decided to award me the fellowship, it clearly had an impact on their decision.
The positive impacts that science communication can have on researchers is underappreciated. It forces us to think creatively, to consider our audience, and to develop novel methods of communicating our work. It also forces us to understand our own work even deeper, in anticipation of questions or related ideas. In my experience, this style of creative thinking is present well before we reach the “Broader Impacts” section. In fact, it is one of the skills that we use to create new hypotheses and design new experiments. As a result, pursuing science communication outreach opportunities can lead to new research ideas and novel scientific discoveries that otherwise might not have been unearthed.
I’m one year into my PhD program, and have posted one video on my channel every week. I’m not planning to stop.
My YouTube channel is called everydAI (“everyday AI”). You can check it out here.