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Scientists take to cyberspace in force

By YANG FEIYUE | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2022-11-08 07:43
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Online platforms used to share expertise in a range of subjects

Zhang Xiyue resisted the temptation to go on a spending spree for her favorite skin-care products during the Nov 11 Singles' Day shopping festival this year.

Like many young women her age, Zhang, who is in her 20s and comes from Xiamen, Fujian province, does not scrimp when it comes to taking care of her skin, and the annual promotional event is usually a prime time for her to stock up on a variety of products.

Her purchases used to be determined by promotional slogans. "I was greedy, and believed that the more items I bought, the better my skin would be," she said, adding that in the past she applied five skin-care products, including two serums.

This situation changed when Zhang started to follow vlogs from doctors at leading hospitals nationwide, including Sun Qiuning from Peking Union Medical College Hospital.

"Sun has provided me with a wealth of skin protection knowledge, and through her advice, I have avoided making some bad choices," Zhang said.

Since Sun presented her first footage on the video-sharing platform Douyin in March 2020, the doctor has produced hundreds of vlogs popularizing skin science. The advice she offers includes ways to treat nettle rash and eczema, as well as choosing the right ointments and other skin-care products.

Netizens describe Sun's account as a "skin encyclopedia", where they find answers to most of their skin-care problems.

In her vlogs, Sun avoids using pedantic and fancy language, or funny gimmicks. In simple words, she dispels misconceptions about skin care and tells netizens the right way to go about this issue.

"I could choose to describe a rather mundane matter in a funny way, but I want to cut right to the chase and tell people what to do," she said.

Sun's medical authority and straightforward approach to imparting comprehensive knowledge about common skin-care problems have earned her more than 4.5 million followers on Douyin.

"This is the result of my 30 years' experience in medicine, and every word I say has a theoretical basis. The purpose of my vlog is to pass on professional and accurate knowledge about dermatology to netizens," she said.

Sun thinks it is necessary and significant to popularize science, which she wanted to do many years ago, when she took part in a rural poverty alleviation program to train grassroots doctors.

"The lack of formal training and expertise among such doctors has led to many patients with minor illnesses not being treated promptly, or to major illnesses that are not treated correctly, causing great distress to patients and their families," Sun said.

She hopes to tell people how to change their lifestyles and treat diseases correctly online. "This is just as meaningful as treating patients personally," Sun said.

Textbooks mainly discuss the physiological structure of the skin and various diseases. But they do not offer advice on how to use a facial mask, the number of times to use facial cleanser each day, or whether sunscreen should be applied, Sun said.

"Most doctors exploring the characteristics of disease often ignore skin disease care, prevention and monitoring after treatment," she added.

Some 50 percent of Sun's patients visit her clinic after using skin-care products incorrectly. After accepting her advice, they simplify their care to better match the condition of their skin, achieving better results.

"I gain a great sense of achievement from giving patients the right information and seeing them benefit from it outside of treatment." she said.

Sun's short online educational videos enable her to reach hundreds of thousands of people, but she is just one of many experts who have taken to cyberspace to pass on their expertise to the public for free.

Memories evoked

Clad in a fisherman's vest, with a pair of eyeglasses hanging around her neck, retired physics professor Wu Yuren from Tongji University in Shanghai has become an online sensation with her short, easy-to-understand science videos.

The 73-year-old has been affectionately labeled "science grandma" by more than 8 million online fans, with her videos receiving a total of 2 billion hits.

Wu's teaching career saw many achievements, including her contribution to a popular college physics textbook, and winning first prize from the Ministry of Education for teaching accomplishments.

Her lectures evoke memories among many online audiences of their school years, when they were struggling with physics, a subject widely considered to be difficult. But Wu manages to change perceptions about the discipline.

One netizen said, "I finally made sense of it," while another commented, "I now kind of like physics."

To demonstrate the principle of a rocket in flight, Wu added a little water to a plastic bottle containing liquid nitrogen, before screwing on the cap, which had small holes drilled in it. She then inverted the bottle, with her audience watching it fly in the air to better understand the recoil phenomenon.

To demonstrate other aspects of physics, Wu uses everyday items, ranging from watermelons and pots, to eggs and balloons.

"It is never too late to learn," said Wu, who over the past decade has dedicated herself to spreading knowledge about science among young people.

In 2007, she set up a laboratory at Tongji University for teenagers. After she retired, she launched a club with her friends and students to promote practical learning about physics, rather than through repetitive tests.

Wu wants to help young people acquire a well-rounded development, remain curious and strive for innovation.

"Our future still depends on the young, so we should ensure they not only do well in exams, but are also responsible for their lives," she said, adding, "These short videos offer the public a convenient access to science."

Moreover, Wu ensures that in popularizing science she always responds to questions from her audience.

Ren Jiaxi, Wu's assistant, said, "When she receives questions from small children, Wu is particularly excited. Sometimes, she even grabs my phone to reply directly to a child."

If the questions are sufficiently interesting, Wu also makes a special video to reply to them, Ren added.

From giving a physics class for two hours, to making a one- or two-minute short video, Wu initially found such tasks a challenge.

Explaining a point of knowledge clearly in such a short time is difficult and requires hard work. "Even if the content is simple, you have to prepare the lesson and repeatedly change the script," Wu said.

She goes to great lengths to explain difficult concepts of physics so that children gain a quick understanding of the subject.

Wu, who has produced more than 250 videos on her Douyin account, insists on updating three to four episodes each week.

"There is no end to what science can tell us, and technology itself is constantly evolving," she said of the need to continuously update her work.

Easy access

In recent years, the range of knowledge offered on short-video platforms has increased, with many researchers leaving their laboratories to present science programs.

The Open Science Class developed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences offers the public easy access to exploring the universe, the evolution of life, the microscopic mechanism of matter, and mathematical and computational techniques.

Lecturers for the class — all scientists specializing in their particular fields — were inundated with questions from enthusiastic netizens during a livestreaming event earlier this year.

The Chinese Association for Science and Technology has joined hands with Douyin to launch an online educational program featuring academicians from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering. The program, which has attracted more than 130 million views, covers energy strategy, rockets, mechanical design, communications technology, and agricultural engineering.

Academicians use the program to try new ways to present science education.

Du Xiangwan, an expert in applied nuclear physics, strong laser technology and energy strategy, quickly endeared himself to one audience by humbly saying that the world is developing fast and scientists might know very little about it.

"Amid the trend of integrated media, short videos are becoming increasingly popular, and I think it is necessary to popularize science in various forms, especially those that young people like," Du said.

"This requires not only a knowledge about science to popularize it, but also the ability to adapt to new industry and new ways of expression."

Academician Liu Jiaqi, who specializes in geomorphology and Quaternary geology, was amazed that his lecture could be watched by millions of people online. Geomorphology refers to the study of the Earth's physical features and their relation to its geological structures, while Quaternary geology is the study of landforms and the unconsolidated sediments that lie beneath them.

Liu said: "In the past, when we gave lectures in the classroom, the audience was very limited, but short-video dissemination excels in scale and effect. Using short videos to popularize science is also a form of science and technology innovation."

In the mobile internet era, scholars and teachers are increasingly making their presence felt in cyberspace to spread and share knowledge for free, enabling more serious content to be readily available to the public.

According to the 2021 Douyin Pan Knowledge Content Data Report, content featuring such knowledge accounts for 20 percent of the platform's viewership. As of last year, more than 1,200 colleges and universities, including Tsinghua University, Peking University and Fudan University, had joined Douyin in offering public classes similar to those taught on campus.

In September, the State Council Information Office held a news conference in Beijing to discuss ways to strengthen the popularization of science and technology in the new era.

Li Meng, vice-minister of science and technology, said cyberspace has become important for popularizing science.

" (We should) support and cultivate the network science popularization team as an important new force, and guide it to spread positive energy, enhance science, and serve the public more conveniently," Li said.

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