Meet The Drag Artists Who Are Making Science More Accessible
Each generation has had science communicators who brought a sometimes stuffy, siloed subject into homes, inspiring minds young and old. Scientists like Don Herbert, Carl Sagan, and Bill Nye are classic examples. But our modern age of social media has brought more diverse communicators into the forefront of science communication, including the wild, wonderful world of STEM drag stars.
These are queer folk who mix the flashy fashions of the drag world with science education. Some, like Kyne, use TikTok as a medium to teach concepts like math. Others, like Pattie Gonia, use drag to attract more people to the great outdoors. The accessibility of the internet has made these personalities available to a wide audience.
Kyne and Pattie Gonia join Ira to talk about the magic drag can bring to science education, and why they think the future of SciComm looks more diverse than the past.
Kyne asks how many holes are in a straw.
@onlinekyne Conversations about holes #topology #math #dragqueen ♬ Monkeys Spinning Monkeys – Kevin MacLeod & Kevin The Monkey
@pattiegonia IT’S CALLED TRASHION, HUNNY. LOOK IT UP!!! Dress made of more than 1000+ pieces of trash. #environmentalist meets #drag ♬ original sound – pattiegonia
And hear the stories of more STEM professionals and scientists combining their passion for science and drag, including Shrouk El-Attar (aka Dancing Queer), Lana Vuli of Science Queers, Twylla Scene, Dyna Cockus Rose, Scary (aka Dean Adze), and Romi.
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IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Who is your generation’s favorite science popularizer? Was it Don Herbert, Mr. Wizard?
SPEAKER 1: Just sprinkle that over the–
SPEAKER 2: Why don’t you tell me what it is before you–
SPEAKER 1: It’s called lycopodium.
SPEAKER 2: Lycopodium?
SPEAKER 1: Lycopodium.
SPEAKER 2: So it’d be similar to, perhaps, a lectern.
IRA FLATOW: Or the legendary Carl Sagan?
CARL SAGAN: The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.
IRA FLATOW: How about Bill Nye?
(SINGING) Bill Nye the Science Guy. Bill Nye the Science–
IRA FLATOW: Our modern age of social media has fostered a new look and new science messengers– STEM-focused drag queens. These are queer folk who mix the flashy fashions of the drag world with science education, like Anna Lytical, who does coding tutorials, and Dr. Sass of Sassy Science, who champions diverse voices in STEM. There’s a wild world of science-savvy, drag-draped communicators out there, and two prominent voices join me today– Kyne, a mathematician based in Kitchener, Ontario, and Pattie Gonia, environmental activist and educator based in Bend, Oregon. Both of you, welcome to Science Friday.
PATTIE GONIA: Thanks for having us.
KYNE: Hi, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Kyne, let me start with you. Drag is a very visual medium, which makes it a bit tricky for us on radio. But I want you both to describe for our audience how you mix science and drag. What does that look like visually for both of you? And as I say, Kyne, you can begin.
KYNE: Sure. So it’s funny, I started out just as a drag queen, you know, like doing shows and lip syncing. I had a YouTube channel where I was, like, showing people how to style wigs. And that was all my side hobby, right? And my main thing was I was in school getting my math degree at the University of Waterloo.
And then when this pandemic started, all of a sudden, I had all this free time on my hands. And I thought, why don’t I try something new? So I started making these math videos on TikTok.
I didn’t really think they would take off. I mean, everybody told me it was going to be such a tiny niche. I mean, math is already an unpopular subject, let alone math taught by cross-dressers. So I was like, who’s going to be into this? I thought it would just be funny. I would be like, I don’t know, the troll from Dora the Explorer, telling people little riddles in these crazy costumes.
PATTIE GONIA: Amazing.
KYNE: But all of a sudden, after maybe three, four videos, people were like, oh my gosh, I’m really understanding math through you. Like, I love learning math this way. So you know, I just started out telling people what I found interesting about math, because I think that the way math is taught makes people think it’s so boring. And my whole thing is that math is interesting and fun and beautiful. So I think hearing that from just somebody on social media who doesn’t look like a traditional teacher, it opens people’s minds up to math.
IRA FLATOW: It sounds like you were as surprised by your own work as everybody else was, at how successful it was.
KYNE: Yeah. I’ve always been a big math nerd, and I’ve always felt like more people should get into math. But I didn’t really know how I could sort of get the word out there. I never once thought I’d be doing it in a wig and a dress and high heels, but–
IRA FLATOW: It worked. And Pattie, what about you? How did you get into this?
PATTIE GONIA: Kyne, I love your story so much. There’s so many similar rungs to the tree of my life to you. I started getting outdoors and backpacking as a kid, and really was trying to get into the outdoors in a time and place– and in Boy Scouts in Nebraska, in an environment that really wasn’t supportive of me as a queer person. And so really, when I did drag for the first time in the outdoors as an adult, about three years ago, I put on 6-inch high-heeled boots, I started strutting down the trails, and– in high heels and doing drag outdoors, and I fell in love with nature in a whole new way.
I saw how queer nature was. I saw how much science was out there, how many queer scientists were out there. And I think that it’s really beautiful to take the reality of climate change, but to really be mindful of the beauty of creative solutions and highlighting amazing scientific work that’s being done out there, amazing research, amazing scientists that are just doing incredible things.
So I think of myself as a climate communicator. I think of myself as trying to entertain and educate. And it’s so fun to get to take a lot of abstract subjects and bring them to people in new ways, and creative ways to reach a whole new population of people, too. We need to think about who the narrator are between science subjects. Also, who are the new communities to reach to bring into the climate movement, to bring into this amazing scientific knowledge that’s out there?
IRA FLATOW: How do you think that drag has helped you do that, reach these new communities?
PATTIE GONIA: That is a great question. I feel like I’m learning more about that every single day. But I think that, really, at the end of the day, drag is a playground where anything is possible. And drag is really a chance to engage people in new ways. It’s so entertaining, but also, I think when people see drag, they see the drag queen that’s inside of themselves, and they see what’s possible when we can bend gender and communicate in new ways and connect in different ways.
IRA FLATOW: Kyne, do you also think that there’s a drag queen inside each of us, and you can tap into that?
KYNE: I think so. You know, I think drag opens people’s hearts. It makes people comfortable. It makes people just feel more outgoing. And they want to have a laugh, you know? So to have drag queens be the educators and the influencers, it makes people more ready to maybe take a pill they wouldn’t have wanted to swallow yesterday.
IRA FLATOW: You know, I watched your math TikTok pieces and thoroughly enjoyed your math teaching skills, because although you are singing and you’re changing outfits, I can see that you take these math lessons very seriously.
KYNE: Oh, I do. I do. Math is– it’s always been my favorite subject, and it’s always been my passion. So looking good is important, but also, teaching the math is very important to me.
IRA FLATOW: Let me address this to both of you. Do you think that you would see it as a supreme triumph if teachers assigned your lessons to their classroom students?
PATTIE GONIA: That would be a dream. Would be amazing. It’s so awesome, too, to get to do what we do on the internet, I feel like, and be able to take that into real life and into science classrooms. It’s been amazing to be a guest speaker inside science classrooms and to see kids’ faces light up with someone that maybe represents them that they’ve never seen before in media, that they’ve never seen as a science communicator. So that’s been one of the most special parts of the journey for me.
IRA FLATOW: Really interesting. Pattie, you recently launched a non-profit, I understand, called The Outdoorist Oath. Tell me about the mission behind this project.
PATTIE GONIA: Yeah, we believe that we need to stop the siloed conversations of planet inclusion and adventure and really start getting people into the outdoors in many different ways, outside of the definition of, quote unquote, “outdoorsy” that we’ve known, and really embrace the outdoors, because if we can fall in love with the planet, then we can better fight for it, right? Because we fight for what we love. So we want everyone to get outside, connect to the planet, connect to themselves, connect to people that aren’t necessarily like themselves or look like themselves, and then intersectionally fight for Planet Earth, because this is the only planet with a Beyoncé on it.
IRA FLATOW: Whom do you imagine is your audience? Do you define it in a certain way? Do you aim it at a certain audience? Because that’s a question most communicators get– who are you trying to reach?
PATTIE GONIA: Kyne, you want to go for it? I would be curious to hear from you.
KYNE: It’s funny, when I write my little TikToks, my goal is to reach people around high school age, college age. I don’t find that I’m that good at teaching, like, very, very young kids about math. High school level, college level’s around the level that I find interesting for me to talk about, personally. But the people that comment on my videos are all kinds of ages. I get teachers who are showing my lessons to classrooms of Grade 4 students. I get people who are long out of school, in their 30s, 40s, 50s, saying that I’ve reignited a love for math. So I guess my videos are for everyone. But when it comes to, I guess, the curriculum, I guess they’re targeted around a high school, college level.
IRA FLATOW: Pattie, any comment?
PATTIE GONIA: Yeah, I definitely think that when I think about my audience, I definitely think about a younger version of me, someone who watched a lot of science communication as a kid and didn’t see anyone like me. I think a lot about queer youth and about different ways to reach them, especially around environmental messages. But I also think a lot about allies. I think that oftentimes we forget the power of allyship and allies in the fight for climate or in the fight for social justice or in the fight for just a more inclusive outdoors. So I definitely try to be as inclusive as possible and trying to speak to as many people as possible, while also still remembering that I’m kind of speaking to a younger me.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because you’re both very active on social media, which I think skews your audience to younger folks, don’t you agree?
PATTIE GONIA: I think you’d be amazed. I have a lot of 50, 60, 70-year-old people who follow me. When I do group hikes and take the community offline in real life, I have people of all different ages. I have people bring their grandparents out, and their grandparents are bigger fans than even they are. It is surreal and so beautiful.
IRA FLATOW: That is surprising. If the medium is the message, as they used to say, what message do you offer that you think is different than, let’s say, Bill Nye or David Attenborough?
KYNE: In terms of what I have in common with them, you know, I’m trying to show that math, and I guess STEM in general, is wonderful, and I’m trying to instill a love for learning in people. But I think being a, you know, Asian, queer drag queen, I want to show people that you can be feminine and still have a career in STEM and in math.
You don’t have to hide your gayness. You don’t have to hide your queerness. You can look however you want to look and wear what you want to wear. And when it all comes down to it, what really matters is what’s in your brain. And if you work hard and you study, then you can achieve what you want.
IRA FLATOW: And you, Pattie?
PATTIE GONIA: Yeah, so much of what Kyne said really resonates with me. I feel like at the end of the day, I just want everyone to know that they can pursue whatever subject that they want, especially sciences, especially if they are queer, especially if they have a unique identity that they want to intersect with their passions, because that’s the most beautiful action we can all take. I mean, when I look at my work, when I look at Kyne’s work, when I look at your work, Ira, I think that we’re all using our talents and skills and applying them to things we love and work we think needs to be done. And I want a future where we’re all doing more of that, because I think we need it.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah, I like the idea that we are all trying to find new ways to be communicators.
PATTIE GONIA: Yeah. Absolutely.
IRA FLATOW: And not afraid to try new things.
PATTIE GONIA: Yeah, we have to try new things. I mean, let’s look at, like, queerness in species. Queerness is a pioneering trait in species where we’re figuring out new ways to do things, new ways to not only survive, but thrive. And I think nature teaches us every single day that diversity in any environment is key for an environment to thrive. And I think that we really need to apply that to STEM. We really need to apply that to the sciences field, because I think that through our diversity and who we are in our identities, we’re going to be such a beautiful future that really supports an ecosystem, especially of youth that are different than ourselves to join us.
IRA FLATOW: It is certainly true that nature really likes diversity. And you can’t have nature without a lot of diversity there. Was there a science communicator who inspired you, Pattie, when you were growing up?
PATTIE GONIA: It’s hard to not think of my childhood without thinking about the TVs that we rolled into classrooms, into the science classrooms, and see Bill Nye on the screen. And I think I just really fell in love with how such an abstract subject of science or math, for example, could be so beautifully entertaining as well. And I think a lot of that’s influenced the work that I do nowadays. And I think when I’m even thinking about the work I do now, there’s amazing science communicators like Hood Naturalist, who’s an amazing Black, femme scientist who’s a birder, who is teaching incredible things. So I think that I’m really glad that it’s being diversified in so many different ways nowadays, too.
IRA FLATOW: Kyne, you too? Do you have someone who influenced you?
KYNE: I would say Carl Sagan was a big influence for me. I think watching old episodes of Cosmos, just the way that he talked about the planet and talked about the universe was the first time that I really started to see science as beautiful, which I never would have described before, because the way we learn it in school is just about memorizing facts. And I think Carl Sagan was the first to really make me think, I’m so thankful to be on this planet and to be able to look up to the sky and to be able to wonder why things are the way they are. You know, it’s about that curiosity and that enthusiasm for learning that I really loved about his communication.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. One of the things that we have today that Carl Sagan didn’t have back in his days is social media. And of course, social media is free, right? You don’t have to get a subscription to your cable box. Does accessibility play a role in what you do, Pattie? What do you think?
PATTIE GONIA: Yeah, for sure. I mean, there are so many barriers for entry to the outdoors. You have to have thousands of dollars of gear. There are so many barriers of entry to academia and being able to read through thousands of pages of paper, probably maybe not even in your first language. There are so many barriers to not feeling safe as a queer person in different labs and in different environments.
So I really feel like social media is an amazing place that removes barriers and improves access to reach new people in new ways. And I think social media gets crapped on a lot, that it is seen as just, like, a less-than tool, or can be cheap or low quality or kind of bad for us. And I say social media is a tool. I think it depends how we use it, right?
We can use a tool for good. We can use a tool to build. We can use a tool to harm. And so I’m really trying to think about, how can we use social media as a tool in science to share information, to build community, to build authentic community that really removes barriers and improves access?
IRA FLATOW: Last question for both of you. What do you see as the future of science communication? And by that, I mean do you see more room for creative personalities like yourselves?
KYNE: I think the future of science communication is social media. I think with social media, you don’t have the same gatekeepers as you have in traditional media. You know, neither I nor Pattie had to get a show greenlit by some office of executives. We just went on social media and started doing our thing. And I think because of that freedom, that’s opened the door to all kinds of different creative personalities. So I’m so excited to see who will be the next communicators in our field.
IRA FLATOW: Pattie, do you think that drag science is a flash in the pan?
PATTIE GONIA: Oh, no way.
IRA FLATOW: Or is it going to be around forever?
PATTIE GONIA: It’s going to be around for forever, at least as long as I’m on Planet Earth, as long as Kyne’s on Planet Earth. And also, like, the kids these days– I just cannot get enough of youth and where they are taking the field of science and how they are studying at Yale or Harvard and doing these incredible media projects to really think about, how are we translating what we are learning here, what we’re studying here, to people and removing barriers and avoiding gatekeepers?
So when I think about the future of science, I think it looks queer as hell. I think it looks full of BIPOC people. I think it looks full of people who are passionate about just sticking their talent and their special skills and their identities and applying it to the field of science, and hopefully making a future where all of us feel more welcome and where we can really, truly be grounded. And the one thing that unites us all is this planet. And it’s time to fight for her.
IRA FLATOW: Can’t say anything better than that for an ending. We have unfortunately run out of time. I want to thank both of you for taking time to be with us today. And really love what you are doing. Kyne, mathematician drag queen based in Kitchener, Ontario. Pattie Gonia, environmental activist and educator based in Bend, Oregon.
KYNE: Thanks so much for having me.
PATTIE GONIA: Thank you so much, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: If you want to know more and see photos of the folks in the STEM drag community, you can head to our website, sciencefriday.com/stemdrag. And if you want to hear a longer version of the interview, take a listen to our podcast. Just search “Science Friday” in your preferred podcast app.