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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Plant biologist turns to TikTok to show kids science in action

By Lela Nargi Special to the Washington Post

Katie Murphy is a plant biologist. She researches corn and tobacco plants at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri. She’s also the host of “Real Time Science,” a series of videos that she uploads to TikTok and Instagram.

Murphy shows kids examples of her experiments in the field and the lab along with other tidbits about her life as a scientist such as how to make a hair tie out of a disposable glove when you forget your hair tie at home. We interviewed Murphy about her work, what she loves about science and other fun things she likes to do.

Q: How did you get interested in science?

In high school, I fell in love with chemistry. … But I didn’t think the research in chemistry was exciting. It’s a lot of mixing clear liquids together. Then in college, I applied for a summer internship in a lab in a biology department (where they were researching corn). That is how I found that I could marry my love of (chemistry) with plants.

What do you like about plant biology?

I can do so much with plants (working in the field). Plants are living things, and I love using them to help people feed the world in a sustainable way.

What are you working on now?

My main project is on tobacco, to produce enormous amounts of oil in tobacco leaves to make new biofuel crops (biofuels are plant-based alternatives to fossil fuels such as crude oil). This is one way we can use plants to help us become carbon neutral (to help with climate change).

I’m also trying to understand plants better to see how they might cope with less water under drought and make them grow efficiently to have less impact on the environment but still feed hungry populations.

Why is TikTok a good way to get kids interested in science?

I don’t want to show kids the results of science. I think they should see the process. As we’ve seen with COVID-19, it’s not enough to give people facts. We have to show them how science works because if they don’t understand the process, they won’t trust the product. The most exciting part of TikTok is people get to be on a journey of discovery with me. I don’t know what will happen (with my experiments), and I have to figure it out.

And along the way, I can show when something’s difficult, give explanations, results and conclusions. A lot of people think a scientist is a person in a white lab coat, but it’s important to show people who we really are. I want to be a role model of a human being in science.

Who are you besides a scientist?

I’m also a dancer. I grew up tap dancing, and I made a video during (the pandemic) for the Dance Your Ph.D. contest put on by Science magazine where you tell the story of your (advanced degree) through dance. I also love to quilt and to garden, just to grow things.

Do we need more women in science?

Getting young women interested in science is not the problem. They’re already interested in science! It’s keeping them there with policies like paid (time off for new parents) to make sure there’s a place for them later.