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Biology Student Hailey Levi Breaks Science Down with TikTok

Hailey Levi
Hailey Levi.

When Hailey Levi was facing deadlines for four finals and a paper at the University of California, Riverside last year, she blew off steam by bopping around an empty lab at school, lip synching to Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” and posing with a microscope, vials and other tools.

“It wasn’t about science, it was just me goofing off in lab for an hour,” Levi says.

Using the handle @chaoticallyscience, the 21-year-old molecular developmental biology major posted her shenanigans on TikTok last May because her younger brother Jordan, now 13, had challenged her to make a video of herself in the lab.

“I was like fine, bet,” says Levi, who now has more than 1,850 followers and more than hundreds and thousands of shares of her videos. “Sibling rivalries can take you very far.”

Levi took to TikTok, a video app that lets users shoot and post 15 or 60-second videos. It is one of the fastest growing social media platforms in the world. It has 500 million active users worldwide, and 41 percent of them are between 16 and 24 years old, according to data compiled by Oberlo.

Levi also posted her “7 Rings” video on Instagram and Twitter and within an hour, her phone was blowing up from so many positive comments and messages that she had to turn off her notifications.

Since then, Levi has posted dozens of other videos about science.

For International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11, she paid tribute to four of the “baddest black females of STEM.”

In another video, inspired by people who say all chemicals are bad and natural is the only way to go, Levi explained that everything is a chemical, even people. And she noted that all-natural things aren’t always good, using arsenic as an example.

Whenever she makes videos, there’s an audience of one in mind — her little brother, whom she says is one of her best friends.

“I’m spreading science in the world and I want to make it easy to understand,” Levi says. “I was like, ‘If he doesn’t understand, nobody else is going to unless they’re super into science.’”

Levi draws inspiration from everywhere, whether it’s her brother, music, sounds and topics trending on TikTok, other scientists or requests from commenters who didn’t understand a concept she explored. Those comments have sometimes led to other TikTok videos where she makes a video answering commenters’ questions.

But there are some ugly pitfalls to life as a budding TikTok science star.

After experiencing online harassment in January over a video she posted about the novel coronavirus, Levi deleted the video from all of her social media platforms earlier this month.

Some commenters accused her of downplaying the virus because she said people wouldn’t contract it if they take the same precautions to avoid it that they do for the flu — washing their hands, staying home when sick and getting vaccinated, she said. Right now, there is no vaccine for Covid-19.

Other commenters engaged in bigotry, blaming China for the virus, or complaining about the quality of the video and taking personal shots at Levi’s appearance. Levi remembers getting into an argument with another user who said she “didn’t belong” in science.

Undeterred, Levi plans to do two more coronavirus videos. One will focus on preventative steps and social distancing. The other one will highlight 20-second songs to wash your hands to, a topic that’s trending on the platform. She plans to post both later this month.

For Levi, assurance and self-care happen when friends come to her defense online when people are bashing her. She already turns off all of her social media notifications so she can have some semblance of a life. Even with the online trolling she experiences, Levi loves TikTok because it helps her unleash her creative side, keep her brother interested in science and reach the younger scientists coming up after her. Still, while she’s excited to see scientists find each other and form communities on the platform, she’d like to see more scientists on it.

“If you want to get to the younger generation … to be in science or become scientists or doctors or do whatever you want in science right now, it’s the place to be right now,” Levi says.

Levi has a few words of advice for scientists interested in TikTok:

  • Don’t be afraid to try something new and to experiment on the platform. It is a fun and easy way to highlight your work.
  • If you want your videos to blow up, follow the trends, but know that you don’t need a million people to see your videos. You only need one person.
  • Don’t get lost in comparing your videos to others. As long as someone outside science sees it and asks questions, you’ve done your job.
  • If you have a research project you’re interested in showcasing, stick to one aspect or if it’s too big, separate it into different videos so it’s easier for you and other people to digest.

“Make a TikTok,” says Levi, who’s bound for grad school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham this fall and plans to eventually become a professor and run her own lab. “Have fun.”

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Lenore T. Adkins