What is your advice to an aspiring scientist?
Be unapologetically yourself.
To Darrion Nguyen, creator of the wildly popular social media account Lab Shenanigans, science has always been, above all else, fun. “I grew up watching a lot of TV,” he recalls. With limited access to cable, Darrion mainly watched PBS shows, such as Arthur, The Magic School Bus, and Bill Nye. It was these public access programs, with their kooky editing styles and quirky sense of humor, that shaped how Darrion viewed science as a child. “I saw science to be entertaining. It was just fun,” he says, adding that these programs still heavily shape his sense of humor. As he grew older, he began to fully appreciate the impact and importance of science. Elementary and middle school science teachers cemented his burgeoning passion for science. “You [could] really see their enthusiasm for science through their teaching, and seeing how passionate they were about the topic really made me passionate about it as well.”
In particular, Darrion remembers Ms. Sieve, his 2nd grade science teacher with a knack for making every student feel important and who allowed her students to cultivate their own individual interests. To this day, he vividly recalls her in-class demonstration on making Play-Doh using common kitchen ingredients. “She probably doesn’t remember it, but I will never forget that demonstration.” From fun and engaging science experiments at school to learning how light works with Miss Frizzle, Darrion glimpsed the power of science in solving the puzzles of everyday life.
As Darrion was cultivating his love of science at school and through after-school TV programs, he was also developing a seemingly unrelated passion for theater. “[My interest] actually started by accident,” he laughingly recalls. In a middle school speech writing class, Darrion misunderstood a homework assignment, prompting him to ad-lib an entirely new speech on the spot during his next class. “I had a whole speech typed out but I did not read it all. I improvised a completely different script,” Darrion remembers. When the students turned in the written versions of their speech, Darrion’s teacher realized what he had done. Impressed with Darrion’s improvisation skills, this teacher, who was also director of the drama club, encouraged him to enter a local drama competition. Despite having little training or preparation, Darrion placed within the top ten of the improv category. Rewarded by that feeling of accomplishment, Darrion was hooked and continued to perform in musicals and plays throughout his middle and high school years.
“I saw science to be entertaining. It was just fun.”
Darrion’s passions for science and theater continued to coexist as he pursued a college education at the University of Texas Austin. As a pre-med major, Darrion was fascinated by his biochemistry and neuroscience classes. To further develop this interest in the brain, Darrion began working in Dr. Teresa Jones’s lab to study the role of neuroplasticity in a rat model of stroke. However, while he initially decided to focus only on his pre-med and science classes, Darrion quickly grew to miss the theater. With the aim of pursuing his passion for performance, he applied for an additional major in theater during his sophomore year. Although the theater major advisor initially denied his request, Darrion persevered and successfully petitioned the theater department to allow him to become UT Austin’s first ever double major in theater and pre-med. With no overlapping coursework, catching up in his theater classes while continuing to study for his science classes led to a lot of late nights. “I do not regret any of that,” he says about this choice, “I knew that I wanted a career in science, but theater for me was just fun.”
Following graduation in 2017, Darrion decided to pursue a Ph.D. To gain more experience in a research environment, he secured a job as a laboratory technician in Dr. Hsiao-Tuan Chao’s lab at Texas Children’s Hospital. Dr. Chao had previously discovered a rare disease called Hypotonia Ataxia Delayed Development Syndrome (HADDS). This neurodevelopmental disorder is characterized by a number of symptoms such as altered muscle tone, speech issues, and delayed development caused by a single mutation in the EBF3 gene. Although the genetic cause and symptoms of HADDS are established, the cellular and molecular signaling pathways contributing to the disease are still unknown. Using genome editing techniques and rodent behavioral assays, Darrion aimed to develop and characterize a mouse model of HADDS with the same genetic mutation. These mice can then be used in future studies to learn more about the biological mechanisms contributing to the disorder, to test potential treatments, and to understand the long-term effects of the disease.
“I wanted this to be for a purpose, where people could not just be entertained but also learn a little bit [of science] along the way.”
Darrion’s two interests, science and theater, merged spontaneously one night in 2018 when Darrion was working in the lab. Waiting for an incubation in a lab protocol, Darrion filmed a short video inspired by what he imagined a scientist would share if they were influencers and posted it online. As Darrion continued posting similar content, his channel grew to encompass an online cult following that has blossomed into the Lab Shenanigans account on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tiktok. With now over half a million followers across his various platforms, Darrion has quickly amassed an online audience that includes scientists and non-scientists alike. “I don’t have to partition these two identities,” Darrion remarks. “I can actually use my theater background training to excel my teaching of science. Everything that I learned in school, I am using now whether that is video editing or filming.” As his videos garnered an increasing amount of attention, Darrion remembered his days watching Bill Nye and Miss Frizzle and realized the true goal of his channel. “I wanted this to be for a purpose,” Darrion says, “where people could not just be entertained but also learn a little bit [of science] along the way.” From sharing the process of cellular mitosis, to educating viewers about the blood-brain barrier, and, more recently, explaining how vaccines protect against COVID-19, Darrion has unlocked a new form of science communication that educates but also engages viewers.
As an openly gay, Asian public figure, Darrion is no stranger to discrimination. While the response to his platform has been mostly positive, Darrion says that he still receives online harassment. Comments mocking his race and/or sexuality are, unfortunately, a daily occurrence. “I think with a lot of the videos where I am just being unapologetically myself, I receive a lot of hate comments,” he remarks. In true Darrion fashion, he has turned this harassment into a learning experience. “It was kind of a mental shift for me,” he explains. Even more than simply growing a thicker skin, Darrion’s approach to hate comments required a fundamental shift in attitude. Over time, he has learned to reframe the comments in his mind and approach them with a sense of humor. “Why do I see [these comments] as a bad thing? I am gay, and that’s just a fact.” Now, Darrion is completely unfazed by the trolls. As he cheerfully states, “I don’t care! I’m here, I’m queer, and I’m going to be loud.” While Darrion’s ultimate goal is to get his PhD in neuroscience, Lab Shenanigans has become his current focus. “A Ph.D. for me is a bucket list item. I know that I will get one, the question is just when. Right now, I want to focus on [Lab Shenanigans] and see how far it goes,” he says. As he supports himself through his content, he is also wrapping up a soon-to-be-published project on his work on HADDS in Dr. Tuan Chao’s lab. In addition to writing this paper, he is experimenting with different ways of growing Lab Shenanigans, from selling merchandise to creating longer format videos on YouTube. As he embarks on his new journey as a content creator and science communicator, Darrion’s biggest goal is to remain authentic to who he is, “I would say this not just to scientists but to everyone else as well: be unapologetically yourself.”
I’m here, I’m queer, and I’m going to be loud.
by Briana Chen