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YouTuber and Physicist Dianna Cowern on Creating Physics Girl

August 16, 2016

We continue our popular Women in STEM Series of interviews with MIT physicist Dianna Cowern, known to millions of YouTube viewers as Physics Girl (created with the support of PBS Digital Studios). Dianna is a science communicator and educator who received her BS in physics from MIT before researching low-metallicity stars at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and designing iPad apps as a software engineer at GE. She then pursued her career in STEM outreach working as an educator at the Reuben H Fleet Science Center and as a physics outreach coordinator at UCSD. Her work on Physics Girl has been featured on the Huffington Post, Slate Magazine, Popular Science, and Scientific American blogs.

headshotDiannaCowern At what point, in high school or college, did science and physics click?

Dianna Cowern: “It was a series of things in high school where physics answered the questions I’d be asking about the world. I do remember a moment during an astronomy class where we were learning about neutron stars. I’d learned about neutrons, protons and particles and found out that neutron stars are so dense that the neutrons are basically touching. That was mind-blowing because of how far apart these particles are in an atom, and that a neutron star has so much mass and so much gravity that the neutrons touch. That was the moment when I went yup, I’m a nerd – I love this stuff!

“I was really lucky in high school, my physics teacher was fantastic. I credit her for being one of the key reasons I pursued physics in college. Unfortunately we didn’t get to E&M [electricity and magnetism], we just did classical mechanics in high school. I also took a conceptual course on quantum mechanics from a teacher at my high school who had earned a physics degree at MIT.” How do you counter the perceptions that ‘physics is too hard’, ‘I could never handle physics, or ‘I’m not smart enough for physics’?

Cowern: “Like anything, people can have an inherent interest in a subject, for whatever reason. Some people have to work harder than others in a certain subject, but I don’t believe physics is nearly as difficult as people make it out to be, or as exclusive. With the right math background physics can be a lot easier, and it’s the lack of math preparation that is really the shortcoming for some students. Through no fault or inherent ability of their own some students aren’t given the math preparation they’ll need.

“Geometry is amazing for physics because physics is very visual and mathematical in a geometric way. If you’re calculating the trajectory of a ball you are calculating a parabola, and that’s geometry. Of course calculus is very important as you get to higher physics courses, but geometry and algebra are foundational.” There is a perception that physics majors have to ultimately pursue PhD’s and academia; what path led you to becoming a YouTuber?

Cowern: “All the YouTubers I’ve met have come from so many walks of life that it’s not weird that I’m a physics major. There are so many different things that physics majors can end up doing, because there are only so many academic positions. In high school you’ll likely be introduced to physics, biology and chemistry but when you get to college you’ll discover so many other branches of science and engineering that build on these starting points.

“I really enjoyed tutoring, teaching and communicating, had done some theatre and had made some science videos when I was in high school. Making science videos on YouTube felt like a great way to combine those interests.” Did you start with a goal in mind or were you just interested in sharing cool stuff with the world?

Cowern: “Definitely the second. Sometimes I’ll make videos that are targeted at younger students, and other times I’ll make videos that are easier to understand if you have a physics background. I like to make content that I’m interested in, thinking of my high school self and what she’d want to watch.” Are you trying to target girls when creating your videos or does that even make any sense?

Cowern: “When I first started creating videos for my YouTube channel I had a couple of people suggest that I do the ‘physics of nail polish’ or the ‘physics of hair dye’. And I’d respond, ‘Are you kidding me? That’s against the progress we’re trying to make!’

“I’m just a person who happens to be a woman in physics. Of course I hope I reach young women and that it encourages more women to consider physics, but I don’t feel the need to cater to any gender.

“I may at some point do topics I’m more familiar with because I’m a woman. I recently got a gel manicure and I was so interested in how they cure the gel using UV light, and how it’s a lot like how 3D printers work, which is something most guys wouldn’t come across in their daily lives. I may, because of the gender-specific experiences in my daily life, make videos related to those experiences, but I’m not going to make something gender-specific on purpose. ‘Cool’ is gender neutral!” In the early days when you didn’t have very many viewers what was your motivation to keep going?

Cowern: “I originally started the channel as a post-undergraduate activity: I wasn’t sure what to do with my life. I was never doing this thinking it would turn into my job.  At some point I realized there are professionals in science communication and that this channel might serve as a portfolio. Initially I was making the videos to develop experience in science communication. I wasn’t focused on the number of subscribers or views – I was creating the videos for a different reason.

“About six months before the pool vortex video went viral I won The Flame Challenge put on by Alan Alda. Winning that award caused my videos to be picked up by a few news sources and PBS got in touch with me. It had taken about 18 months to get to 5,000 subscribers leading up to that point. That award and being contacted by PBS made me think that being a science communicator on YouTube could actually be a job.” What was the impact of your pool vortex video hitting five million views (and counting)?

Cowern: “The pool vortex hit the hundred thousand mark before any of my other videos, and then the million mark; it was really exciting. It also made me more critical of the video, had I fact-checked everything? Did I comb my hair? You become aware of more things once millions of people are seeing your work.

“The reaction to that video was overwhelmingly positive. A pool vortex is a really cool and simple to reproduce phenomenon. Looking back I didn’t think about the fact that I was making the video in November and many people’s pools are drained for the winter! I live in San Diego and it’s sunny all year. I mostly had backlash about the weather! It was very exciting to reach a different and wider audience, it was also more like the starting point than an ‘I’ve made it’ moment. You have to constantly keep improving and producing content to maintain the loyalty of your audience.” Your more recent videos are in collaboration with PBS. Has that helped make this a full-time job?

Cowern: “My income is 100% from my YouTube channel because for the past year PBS has sponsored Physics Girl; that’s how I support myself.” What advice do you have for other YouTubers? What have you learned about being successful?

Cowern: “In the beginning I wasn’t going all in with YouTube and that’s how I recommend you think about it. I still had part-time jobs on the side. Of course there are some people who have gone all in on YouTube and been successful, but I view YouTube as the ‘new acting’. I would never say put all your money and resources into becoming a YouTube star because the chances of it becoming a full-time job are very low. The audience changes over time and you are competing against a lot of content. I don’t want to discourage anyone from going for it, you just have to accept that it may not work out. I believe the way I approached YouTube can work for more people: support yourself with a steady income on the side while you figure out how to make your channel work.” You had a chance to meet with Bill Nye the Science Guy for the Mars episode. What was that like?

Cowern: “That was so exciting to meet Bill Nye – it was surreal – I’ve been watching him since I was a kid and I look up to him as a science communicator. Unfortunately I was really sick the day we filmed so the whole experience is a blur!” Which Physics Girl episode are you most proud of and why?

Cowern: “I’m most proud of an episode I worked really hard on, ‘Why is the universe flat?’, which is about the work of Prof. Alan Guth and cosmic inflation. Getting to film a video with Prof. Guth, who is one of my physics ideals, and to go that deep in a topic that is more complicated, was something I’ve very proud of.” What is happening in the physics world that most excites you?

Cowern: “The discovery of gravitational waves announced earlier this year trumps everything. It’s so exciting! I remember hearing about the detector experiments when I was in school and thought it would be so cool if we detected gravitational waves, but at the time it sounded like that discovery would be at least 50 years away. When it finally happened it was so unbelievably exciting not just for the physics community but the world.” What would you say to a high school student who is trying to decide whether or not to give math and science a try?

Cowern: “I would say the things that were said to me by my teachers: things like ‘girls who do physics are awesome!’ and that we need more women in physics. The numbers are too low. Anyone who tells you that math, physics and science are for boys only are wrong. I encourage young women to take physics.

“I was fortunate that no one in my younger years deterred me from pursuing math and physics.” Finally, what affirming experiences have you had, beyond the millions of view, that have let you know you are helping kids?

Cowern: “It’s often an email from a dad emailing me about his daughter and how she wasn’t interested in science until she watched a video that piqued her interest. There’s one email that sticks in my mind: it was a girl whose mom had passed away and who had detached from her interests. This girl started watching physics videos and was becoming happier and more interested in the world. That’s an extreme example but it brought tears to my eyes. There is something about science that sheds a light on the wonders of the world, and can bring happiness.”

  1. Randy permalink
    August 16, 2016 8:46 am

    I love Dianna’s work and seeing her get the attention she and her cause so deserve. I haven’t studied college level physics since the early 80s but I do follow it. Our technological world literally revolves around the study of electron and the electromagnetic spectrum.

    As Dianna so eloquently stated, “There is something about science that sheds a light on the wonders of the world, and can bring happiness.”

    At any age 🙂

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