British chemistry professor catapults to online fame by making science fun

Li Qian
David G. Evans wants everyone to love science, and he's showing them all its wonders in chemical experiments uploaded online and conducted in schools.
Li Qian
British chemistry professor catapults to online fame by making science fun
Ti Gong

Students scramble for a rose used in a chemical experiment.

Professor David G. Evans, 65, an Oxford University graduate who has been teaching chemistry at a Beijing institute for nearly three decades, has broken out of cloistered campus life to become an Internet sensation in China.

The springboard from academic to online celebrity resulted from his mission to enlighten the general public on the wonders of chemistry by making science accessible and fun.

On the short-video app Kauishou, his videos of chemical experiments have attracted nearly 10 million followers. He is also a frequent visitor at schools, dazzling young students with experiments that produce bubbles in test tubes, smoke, fire and fluorescent colors.

"The most important thing is not which reaction you choose to show, but how you present the material to make it interesting and to impart some knowledge," he said. "I want to use the Internet to ignite their interest in chemistry."

British chemistry professor catapults to online fame by making science fun

David G. Evans has nearly 10 million followers on Kuaishou.

Evans, known on social media as Dr Dai from his Chinese name Dai Wei, has been teaching at the Beijing University of Chemical Technology since 1996. But his interest in China dates back to his childhood in Britain.

When he was 11, he wanted to take a peek at a faraway exotic country, so he subscribed to the Beijing Review magazine from the Chinese Embassy in London.

Back then, he explained, people had little access to information about China.

"I wanted to learn more about China, just as I did chemistry," he said.

His childhood dream of one day stepping foot in the country came to pass in 1987, when the then chemistry professor from Exeter University was invited to attend a chemistry conference in Nanjing.

He first disembarked in Shanghai, recalling how he stood on the Bund and gazed across the Huangpu River at the eastern shore, which was then paddy fields.

"Look how advanced and convenient Shanghai is now," he said. "Even food delivery service 24 hours a day is available."

British chemistry professor catapults to online fame by making science fun
Ti Gong

Evans with rural children in his earlier days in China.

He returned to China once or twice a year before moving to Beijing in 1996 to take up a teaching post there -- a "once in a lifetime opportunity," he called it.

Friends and colleagues in the UK were skeptical about his decision, questioning what sort of science he could do in China. His mother, then 70, was so worried that she flew to Beijing to inspect his living conditions – and found them acceptable.

"I'd been coming to China since 1987, and I've seen all of the changes that have happened in China. It's a place full of potential," he said.

But the campus lab couldn't contain Evans's dedication to chemistry. He decided to expand his focus, taking science out to the public.

"In this era, we are all bombarded with information," he said. "How do you actually sort out what is true and what is rumor? Everybody these days needs to think in a scientific way."

British chemistry professor catapults to online fame by making science fun
Ti Gong

Young students are astounded by a chemical reaction.

He sees his endeavors to popularize science as a supplement to China's education system, where he finds some students fed up with textbooks and yearning for more practical, hands-on experience.

His efforts have paid off.

"I studied chemistry for three years, but I never even touched a test tube," one student told him. "I thought chemistry was really boring. But when I see you do these experiments, I suddenly realize that, wow, chemistry is really exciting."

Just what Dr Dai likes to hear.

"Hopefully, I can give students a chance to actually see the beauty of chemistry, and some of them may actually be inspired to become scientists," he said.

So far, he has visited more than 300 cities across China, delivering chemistry lessons in schools, science museums and other venues.

British chemistry professor catapults to online fame by making science fun
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

David G. Evans gives a lesson on combustion during a visit to the Hongkou Fire Station in Shanghai.

In his most recent trip to Shanghai, he took his portable chemistry lessons to the Hongkou Fire Station, First Central Primary School of Jing'an and Gezhi High School.

But China was so huge that Evans realized he needed to be more creative in reaching out to the public. So in 2018, he started uploading videos on Kuaishou.

So far, account "Professor Dai's Lab" has posted 534 videos, which have received over 9.9 million followers and 23 million "likes."

He especially wants to take his message to rural China, where many young students lack the benefits of big city educations. Videos are his medium of communication.

For his contributions in China, Evans was presented the Friendship Award, the highest honor in China for foreigners, in 2001, and the China International Science and Technology Cooperation Award, the top scientific award for foreign scientists, in 2005.

"I wish I could have a chemistry teacher like you," wrote one young admirer in an online posting.

"If we all have such chemistry lessons, we would all be very interested in chemistry," wrote another.

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