Darrion Nguyen’s first viral video features just him and a pipette, a basic tool for science research.
“So I just got the newest pipette set, and I’m here to review it with you guys,” Nguyen says into the camera, copying the style of a gadget or makeup unboxing video right down to the artificially cheery tone. He even holds the pipette up to the camera with a gloved hand to put it in focus. The video, which he published on Facebook in 2019, currently has over two thousand comments and almost four thousand likes — but it was just the beginning.
Nguyen, 25, who uses the handle lab_shenanigans on social media, has risen to stardom on Facebook and TikTok by making short videos that blend science and (frequently self-deprecating) humor. His audience includes graduate students and full-time researchers, as well as middle and high school students and those who haven’t taken a science class in years. His impressions of stern principal investigators (PI), sleep-deprived postdoctoral researchers, and bumbling undergraduates come from an exaggeration of his own experiences in labs.
“I noticed these basic characteristics of all these different positions, and I thought, ‘Let me try to use these audios on TikTok to poke fun at all these traits,’” Nguyen tells Inverse. “It was unexpected for people to even understand it and to think it was relatable.”
Inverse spoke to Nguyen about collaborative research, combining education with entertainment, and lots of TikToks.
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This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What was your first experience with science?
I remember being 2 or 3 years old, sitting in my grandma's tailor shop and waiting for my aunt to come and pick me up. While I was waiting for her I would watch Bill Nye the Science Guy.
In one episode ["Earth's Crust"], they're talking about the Earth's crust, mantle, and core. They had this skit where this little boy and his parents are in the kitchen, and his mom made him some sandwiches and he would peel off the crust and only eat the center part. Then, all of a sudden, an earthquake happens, and the parents are freaking out. They're like, “Son, you should've eaten the crust!” It's dumb humor like that that makes me remember things like the Earth's covering.
Growing up, I always saw myself as an entertainer, and I just also happen to love science. I merged my two passions together when I went to college, and I studied biochemistry and theater. That's just who I am.
What did you think a scientist did when you were a kid? How is that different from what you do now?
I think I saw a very exaggerated version of scientists portrayed in movies, cartoons, and TV shows. I was a little disappointed to see that we weren't exploding everything, or that we weren't saying “Eureka!” to almost every experiment. I think reality hit me when I was in middle school and we did, like, some dissections. I was like, “Oh, that was fun, but it wasn't as dramatic as I expected.”
What was your first failure in science?
I remember putting together my fifth grade science fair project. I think my experiment was what would happen if you watered a plant with Coca-Cola. Every single day for a few weeks, I measured the height of the plant and took pictures. A couple days before the whole trifold was due, I asked my mom to develop the pictures, and she didn't do it. So I started bawling, like, “I'm going to fail science class.” I ended up getting an extension on it, but I felt so hurt.
It’s funny you say that, since science research can be so collaborative. Have you had collaborations go wrong now as a research technician?
We're collaborating with another lab on a project, and a few weeks ago I asked this other lab for a male mouse to set up with my female mice. I put that male with my two females and generally it takes about three weeks for them to deliver a litter. So three weeks went by, no litter. I asked the person who gave me the mouse if it had any problems breeding. Turns out she gave me a female mouse. It was both our faults and probably the dumbest mistake I've made in the three years I’ve been a research technician. The most nerve-wracking part was, “How do I tell my PI?” But when I told her, she wasn't mad at all, and we just had a good laugh about it.
When did you know that science was for you?
I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by great mentors, starting with my fourth grade science teacher. Then, my chemistry teacher from sophomore year of high school changed my perception of what it means to be a scientist by being smart but also fun, laid-back, and social. Finally, freshman year of college, my general chemistry teacher was so passionate about teaching and did such a good job explaining very complicated concepts.
Also, taking organic chemistry, I was fascinated by all the reaction mechanisms. The way that I see it is kind of like cooking: How do you get from having all these scraps to making a hamburger? Well, you have this mechanism to assemble the bread, and then you have this mechanism to prepare the meat, and so on. I think organic chemistry and biochemistry were pivotal classes where I realized that this is what I want to do.
What’s your process for coming up with video ideas and making them into TikToks?
A lot of people think that, for example, if I want to make a video about mitosis, I'd look for the perfect audio. But I actually work backwards, where I will casually scroll through my For You page, and I'll save audio that I think has a lot of potential. It's so funny, it's so chaotic, it's me.
Then I'll listen to my saved audio files and think of biology content that's applicable. If it mentions something like “checkpoint,” then that reminds me of the checkpoints to ensure that DNA has replicated properly. Once I have the blueprints of the video, then I'll start filming it. It could take anywhere from a couple days to a couple weeks.
What’s been your favorite TikTok to make?
It was an audio from Scary Movie 2. It's when Brenda was hiding from Cindy, and Cindy is getting chased by this skeleton. In the video Brenda was the healthy cell and Cindy was the infected cell being chased by a killer T cell. I think that video was about 50 seconds long, but it took me two hours to film because it was late at night and the janitor kept walking in the back. I think as the scene gets crazier and crazier, my expressions get even crazier, and by the very end, I'm on the floor holding a phone in front of my face shaking it and screaming, but not audibly. I was just thinking, whoever's watching me on that camera over there must be wondering, What the heck is this guy doing on the floor, holding a camera shaking in front of his face?
Are there any videos you’ve made that you think deserve more recognition than they’ve received?
I thought this one was hilarious — it’s the audio from the burn book scene in Mean Girls, and the caption is “me in high school when I found out Rosalind Franklin was robbed.”
It’s fairly common for comments on TikTok videos to be light roasts. How do you deal with being criticized by 13-year-olds?
I love the TikTok culture of roasting. It’s exactly my type of humor. I think I would be more sensitive if they were to make fun of something that is very personal to me, but so far, I’ve never been offended by a comment. Even if it’s really mean, the way I see it is that they don’t know me.
How have you changed your field?
People have told me that I'm the current Bill Nye the Science Guy, and I'm like, “Am I, though?” I can see some of the similarities because like the segments that made up his show, my videos are short skits. I try to make my videos entertaining and have you learn something as a by-product. That's how I'm changing this field: I'm trying to communicate science, but I'm doing it in a sneaky way.
What’s a rookie mistake that you’ve made?
I'm hesitant to answer this question because some of these things I haven't told my PI. And so my biggest fear is her hearing this and being like, “You did what?” But our lab orders antibodies that come in these small tubes, and you’re supposed to spin them down [in a centrifuge] so they don’t stick to the top. I didn’t do that for an antibody that cost $500, and when I opened the tube, this chunk of ice fell out. I didn’t think it was anything, but then when I went to pipette out the antibodies, there were barely any left in the tube. So I thought, “Where did it go?” and then I saw that chunk of ice thawing on my bench.
What’s your superpower?
When I was in college, I loved doing improv comedy. A lot of the time, I’ll try to plan out everything in my videos, but then in the moment I like to try new things out. Those spontaneous ideas sometimes make for great videos. I think my superpower is to just go with my instinct and use my theater training to adapt and improvise.
What’s one thing you’d tell your 15-year-old self?
Sophomore year of high school was rough. I had a crush on a straight man. In all seriousness, I wish I had focused more on making videos. I was holding myself back in order to focus on school, and I had so much on my plate that I couldn’t make videos, which is my way of expressing myself. That’s my advice: “You’re busy, but find outlets to be creative, and keep making those videos.”
What’s a prediction you have for 2030?
I think by then social media will have changed the way that we convey information and communicate science. I am proud to be one of the forefront people making science videos on social media right now, and I hope that I’ll see another generation of young scientists doing what I’m doing. That’s less of a prediction and more of a goal.
What do you do on a day off?
Once I’m done answering customer service emails for my merchandise shop, I like brainstorming video ideas and watching Netflix. I’ve been watching Umbrella Academy recently.
If your biography were written today, what would the title be, and who would you want to write it?
Live, laugh, love: It’s my life. And I’d want Kevin Kwan, the author of Crazy Rich Asians, to write it. I love how he really explains all the tiny details of Asian culture, and how families are very gossipy and superstitious. I think working in a lab can be like that sometimes. I’d want him to write about my life and explain all the lab drama and gossip.
Who’s a scientist you want to shout out?
Science.sam [Samatha Yammine, a neuroscientist] — I love her. She really uses her platform for good. She informs the public and debunks information, and I've learned so much from her.
What’s next for you?
I applied to grad school a year ago to pursue a neuroscience Ph.D. and got accepted to a program, but I deferred for a year to focus on social media and explore my creative side.
I’ve also been getting opportunities to give talks at universities about using social media to communicate science. I genuinely enjoy talking to other students and don’t mind doing it for free. In case people like professors haven’t heard of TikTok, I usually explain that it’s a social media app where people can make short, funny videos that use pop culture audio and mouth the words to them. What I do is apply those lyrics to a biology concept or talk about a relatable experience in the lab.
I’ve been a heavy user of TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, but if you notice, YouTube isn’t currently in the picture. Be on the lookout for lab_shenanigans and more videos on that platform.