“Vaccines? Just a little jab. Don’t worry mate, it’s not that bad.”
These are the words of chemistry researcher Joel Rindelaub, one of the many University of Auckland academics who are actively working to combat Covid-19. His area of expertise is aerosols. The global pandemic has thrust many researchers like Joel into the spotlight, faced with the challenge of communicating their scientific knowledge to a wider audience. Donning a white lab coat, a tiger shirt and retro sunglasses, Joel (under the alias Dr. J) has chosen his own route, unapologetically making his message clear with his viral rap music video ‘Vax the Nation’.
Going from air flow to rap flow was a natural transition for Joel — at least for this cause. “I’ve been doing a lot of science communication work, and just trying to keep science in the mainstream in pop culture,” he tells me. “What I wanted was to try and do something that [addresses] the most pressing scientific issue in New Zealand, right now, which is to ensure that we can keep each other safe. Turns out there’s not a lot of hip hop lyrics dedicated to scientific advancement, so there was an opportunity there.”
So, perhaps you’re wondering what all the fuss is about? If you haven’t seen it yet, Dr. J and collaborator Randa deliver a three-minute rap about the importance of getting vaccinated against Covid. No effort was spared in the writing of the rap, with rhymes such as vaccines being “proven protection, that could save your ass from a Covid infection”, or my personal favourite: “the virus will loiter outside your home, try to steal your breath, infect your dome.”
If you were blunt, you might describe the video as a cringe-inducing experience (don’t worry, you wouldn’t be the first to do so, or the three-thousandth judging by the response on YouTube). “The reaction has been divisive,” Joel admits. “Very supportive on one end, and then some people who are entrenched in their opinions hate it. But it’s funny, because the anti-vaxxers are the ones who are actually sharing this video the most, so it’s actually reaching the intended audience quite well. So in that case, I would say it’s a massive success.”
Despite some negativity flung his way, Joel remains unaffected by it. “I have actually been finding [the comments] pretty entertaining to be honest. They don’t really bother me — it’s just kind of like watching a train wreck. You wouldn’t really take criticism from someone that you wouldn’t go to for advice, and internet comments are not the place to go to for advice — that’s for sure.”
The project features some exciting cameos from other University of Auckland academics, including rockstar microbiologist Dr. Siouxsie Wiles, Dame Juliet Gerrard and Dr. Jin Russell. “I don’t know why they agreed to do it, but they did,” Joel jokes. “It was really fun to see them on camera give a little bit of a boogie to help support the message. We all feel very passionately about keeping New Zealand safe, and we’re not afraid to look a little silly while doing it if we can get the message across.” Politicians Chloe Swarbrick and David Seymour, who seem to pop up everywhere nowadays, appear at one point too, with the latter getting a line complaining about tax. Cheeky.
Ultimately, this has been an unique experience for Joel which many in academia haven’t dealt with before, that being such an intense exposure to the media landscape. I asked him if he had any advice for fellow researchers in a similar situation. “Try to focus on your message, because that’s all you can really control,” says Joel. “And don’t let other people tell you you’re not doing something awesome when you know that you are.”
“Just don’t worry about the trolls and go out there and do you.”
“Science communication is hard, that’s for sure,” Joel admits, when I ask him to sum up his journey thus far. “But it’s necessary. And if you can have fun while doing it, that’s just a bonus.”
“If at first, nobody watches, that’s normal. That’s just how it works — it’s a process. So if you’re passionate about something, you need to just do it, and see what happens. The more you do it, the better you’ll get, and the more fun you can have.”
“Word,” Joel says, to finish off the interview. He didn’t really say that. I like to think that he would have, if he wasn’t heading off to start his next adventure.
Watch Vax the Nation by Dr. J & Randa on YouTube via the link below: