Spotlight on Dr. Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim

 

The Right Formula for Communicating Complex Science

A young chemist starts an experiment and talks about science on the Internet. Fast forward to a few years later: Dr. Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim has become one of the key public figures of science communication in Germany.

Every now and then, there are days when Nguyen-Kim longs for the predictable peace and quiet of a laboratory – when the storm of indignation from exasperated dogmatists rages through the social networks after she has published a pointed article on the opportunities of green genetic engineering, for example. Then she wistfully thinks of how relaxed life used to be, just donning her gloves and a white lab coat and then working with pipettes and flasks. At those times, she would like to go distill some liquids for experiments. Yet the chemist keeps putting herself in the middle of the storm. She is there because she talks about science – on the Internet, on her YouTube channel, and on public television. With formats and shows like her “maiLab,” “Terra X,” and now “MAITHINK X – the Show,” she embodies modern, enticing, persuasive, and well-researched science communication. In recognition of this achievement, Nguyen-Kim will be presented the Aachen Engineering Award on Saturday, September 3, at 7pm at the Coronation Hall at Aachen City Hall. She will already be in town in the afternoon to speak to the many graduates in attendance at RWTH Aachen University’s Graduation Celebration.

With this award, the chemist follows in the footsteps of last year’s winner, the technology pioneer Sebastian Thrun, or family entrepreneur Hans Peter Stihl, honored the year before that. Other previous award winners were Berthold Leibinger (who sadly died in 2018), who was recognized for turning the small machine factory Trumpf into a high-tech group in laser technology, and Franz F. Pischinger, who as an RWTH professor founded FEV Motorentechnik GmbH as a spin-off in Aachen. Other honorees were the astronaut Thomas Reiter, the long-serving director at RWTH's Machine Tool Laboratory WZL Professor Manfred Weck, and microbiologist Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier, whose discovery CRISPR-Cas9 fundamentally changed the world of biotechnology and who has since been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The award that is jointly conferred by the city of Aachen and RWTH Aachen University is supported by the Association of German Engineers VDI. The Association is also sponsoring the “Kreuzende Ellipsen” sculpture by artist Mariana Castillo Deball, which will be awarded to Nguyen-Kim at the festive ceremony at Aachen City Hall.

Science Communication Taken to “Another Level”

All prize winners stand out for giving society meaningful social, technical, and economic impulses as well as having the gift of inspiring the younger generations. “Dr. Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim has taken science communication to another level in recent years, building a unique communicative bridge to present scientific issues to both policymakers and the broader society in a way that is easy to follow and comprehend. As a scientist with a doctorate in chemistry, who still has close ties to RWTH Aachen University, she has a special role model function for RWTH students,” says Professor Ulrich Rüdiger, Rector of RWTH Aachen University, explaining the decision. “The Coronavirus pandemic has shown us that we must focus on communicating scientific content in a way that is easy for people to understand so that we can all stay engaged in dialogue and, as a result, have more empathy towards one another,” says Aachen’s Lord Mayor Sibylle Keupen.

But let’s start at the beginning: Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim was born in Heppenheim, Germany. Her parents came from Vietnam, and her father used to work as a chemist at BASF. So the chemistry was right from the start, so to speak, as far as the connection between her family and the natural sciences goes. After graduating from high school, Nguyen-Kim decided to follow in her father’s footsteps and studied chemistry at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, later completing a research stay at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States. In 2012, she came to Aachen and RWTH, where she began her doctoral studies at the DWI Leibniz Institute for Interactive Materials. She spent a year at Harvard and at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research to do research. Eventually, she earned her doctorate at the University of Potsdam with a thesis on polyurethane-based physical hydrogels.

However, this doctorate was still a distant, bold thought in her mind when Nguyen-Kim began to develop her particular enthusiasm for communicating scientific content to audiences already A young student and full of energy, she tried her hand at science slams and similar formats, always presenting the facts in a cheerful and fast-paced manner. One of her early performances at RWTH (2013) is still one of the University's most clicked YouTube videos. She then shifted her performances from the stage to the Internet and started producing her first videos, becoming more and more professional as she went along. In 2015, she launched her YouTube channel “The Secret Life of Scientists,” which deliberately broke stereotypes about natural scientists. In 2016, “schönschlau” followed, which was later renamed to “maiLab” in 2018. “maiLab” now has 1.4 million subscribers. One thing has become clear quickly: She resonates with an entire generation. “Bei ihr macht's Klick,” loosely translated as “Something clicks, when she explains it” was the title of a portrait featured in the ZEIT Campus journal in 2019.

Beginning Her Journey With Some Naive Notions

Television was the next logical step for the young chemist, who likes to greet her viewers as “friends of the sun.” She hosted the German Science TV show “Quarks” with Ranga Yogeshwar (until November 2018) – a kind of early mentor for her – and then Ralph Caspers. Before moving on from Quarks to the Terra X team, she was also active on Harald Lesch’s YouTube channel. She wrote her first book, titled “Komisch alles chemisch” (Funny Everything’s Chemical) and landed high – at Number 2 – on the German bestseller lists with it. She wrote a second book, titled “Die kleinste gemeinsame Wirklichkeit” (The Smallest Common Reality), and was number one within a week.
When Nguyen-Kim today thinks about how it all began, she says: “I, like so many others, had a naive notion that you can’t argue with scientific facts. That science is neither political nor a matter that can be questioned. I had to put that notion to rest.” With her clear and direct manner, she did not only reach open ears and minds. “The ’all you need is good arguments’ approach is no longer enough,” she says.

There is more communication about science today than probably ever before – with the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic so obviously affecting our lives now. But there are also those who deliberately sow doubts about what scientists convey, and Nguyen-Kim has faced down conspiracy theorists more than once in the wake of the pandemic. When the pandemic was still new, she joined the German Tagesthemen news show as a commentator, and then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly praised her for her easy-to-follow explanations. One of her YouTube videos about Coronavirus has been viewed 6.6 million times, and 50,000 viewers have left comments. She has been praised, presented with awards (such as the Grimme Prize and the Nannen Prize), and even received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. On the flip side of the coin, however, conspiracy theorists filled her digital inboxes with hate mail. Her energy and courage to talk about science are nonetheless undiminished.

With Carolin Kebekus at the Gym

Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim has always wanted to stay empathetic. When in doubt, give the ignorant the benefit of the doubt. But this is becoming more and more difficult. Nevertheless, she still puts herself out there. As a matter of fact, she sticks her head out more than ever. With her new production for ZDFneo “MAITHINK X - die Show” she has developed an innovative new format for talking about science. “MAITHINK X” is a show that transforms unwieldy-seeming topics such as genetic engineering or criticism of the lack of opportunities for women in science (“I am Hanna”) into a form of fast-paced, MTV-style entertainment. Nguyen-Kim bounces through doctoral studies as Super Mario, has Tatort inspector Jasna Fritzi Bauer clean a drainpipe, and comedian Carolin Kebekus order a pizza at a gym. There is a fine art to it: What is conveyed in “MAITHINK X” does not become trite or silly at all; it remains relevant and makes you think in the end.

Of course, these shows polarize because of their offensive portrayals. But isn’t that what we need? With this kind of science communication, the young chemist has become the role model for an entire generation of young people as they launch new YouTube channels, write books, or take to science slam stages. “When a young girl tells me she wants to study chemistry because I’m her role model, I get cold feet with joy,” she says.

As a chemist, she has always enjoyed the practical applications more than learning about the theoretical foundations. “That’s why I feel very connected to engineers. Mechanical engineering would also have been a fun discipline for me, she says today. Her interdisciplinary approach to research, which she also used to pursue her doctorate, ended up being more biomedical than chemical and had many engineering touches. “The big challenges need cross-disciplinary solutions. And that’s where the communication challenge begins – for example, when engineers try to talk to chemists,” she explains. By the way, communication at home is easy enough, because the chemistry is still right: Her brother and husband also became chemists, joining the family profession.

A Nostalgic View

“Engineers need to understand that their work is for nothing if people don’t understand it,” she stresses, stringing together the big issues in her typical engaging manner: MRNA vaccines, autonomous vehicles, quantum computing. All this will come, in her opinion, and research has come a long way, but in the end, it will not only take successful science; it will take public acceptance. It helps if science comes across as less abstract, if only because it is associated with faces and thus with people then. “It’s important that the people behind the research become visible. The image of scientists is still too strongly shaped by series and movies such as Big Bang Theory.”

Dr. Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim has set herself the task of changing that and wants to generate public acceptance for science. To do this, she has left her own research projects behind. Her work as a science journalist still takes her into laboratories, but now she is there in another role. She inevitably no longer reaches the technical depth in her field, but reading and learning are still core tasks in her day-to-day routine. “I feel very fortunate in my work,” she says. “If I can inspire researchers to communicate, that is the best reward for my efforts.”

And the public pressure? The mean criticism that is part of her job? That is one of those moments when she longs for the tranquility of the lab. But was it really so perfect? When Nguyen-Kim thinks back on her studies and doctorate, she knows her lab memories are clouded by nostalgia. It may have been peaceful and tranquil in there. But how often did curiosity get the best of her and make her choose work over free time on the weekends? Go back to the lab to look at the measurement series on a Saturday? Of course! Recheck the results on a Sunday? Of course! So much for relaxed days at the lab. On closer inspection, they were actually quite rare.

Text: Thorsten Karbach