Seminar Hour Goes Viral: Scientists Hold Forth in YouTube Videos

Apr 18th, 2011 | By Stephen Hinshaw | Category: Current Issue, Features

2005 saw the birth of a new frontier in time-wasting technology. By its official launch in December, roughly eight million videos were being watched on YouTube every day. That figure has since risen to over two billion[1]. But recent years have seen a shift from time-wasting to message-spreading. Mainstream politics is among a variety of late-coming “serious” applications, a move that has earned President Obama the nickname, “The YouTube President[2]”. It’s a new era in online video that has people from all disciplines asking, “How can I make this work for me?” American scientists (and their publicists) are no exception.

It would be a stretch to identify the first “YouTube Professor,” but Ron Vale, a Howard Hughes investigator and Vice Chair of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), is a clear front-runner. His website, iBioSeminars delivers content-rich talks from serious academics[3]. The project, a joint effort of the American Society of Cell Biology (ASCB), the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), and UCSF, offers 42-minute lectures covering everything from microtubule dynamics to global health. Shorter clips are also available – perhaps an indication of the pull of YouTube culture.

As with any publicly-accessible resource, shared content can be a target for misinterpretation. Examples include the Discovery Institute’s alleged hijack of molecular animations and inaccuracies in content presented in a number of home-brewed videos[4,5]. But this concern is not slowing Ron Vale and his crew. Apparently, the benefits of promoting one’s own work outweigh the risk of being misunderstood.

Besides the talks themselves, the most fascinating aspect of iBioSeminars is the context into which real science is dropped. These videos coexist with, and in many cases are linked directly to, inanity (Stanford students miming protein translation[6]) and recreational abstraction (conversations with Richard Feynman[7]). Far from cheapening the content, this juxtaposition serves as a reminder. The midday seminar, a formula that is second nature to academics, has found its way beyond the ivory towers. One might wonder what this means for scientific literacy. Should all of this be taken seriously? The number of views – nearly ten thousand for Harvard Professor Richard Losick’s talk on B. subtilis sporulation – argues for the affirmative[8].

The iBioSeminars project offers at least two lessons for the average investigator. The first is obvious: competition for funding will continue to increase. As this happens, making one’s work accessible to the public (scientific and otherwise) is bound to become more vital to the granting process. The second lesson is fun: iBioSeminars is a reminder that academic science is often incredible.

Professor Vale is not the only person thinking about these issues. Now that you have explored all the content at iBioSeminars, go ahead and check out the wider world of science on YouTube. Feel encouraged to add your own favorites below.

Tom McFadden rhymes meiosis [9]:

“Cadamole” sings inheritance [10]:

Ron Vale goes on a search for molecular motors [11]:

Richard Feynman: philosophy and math [7]:

The Hubble Deep-Field [12]:


[1] YouTube facts & figures. (2011). Retrieved April 6, 2011, from

[2] Vargas, J. A. (2008). The YouTube presidency. Retrieved April 6, 2011, from

[3] iBioSeminars: Bringing the world’s best biology to you. (2011). Retrieved April 6, 2011, 2011, from

[4] Bolinsky, D. (2008). ‘Expelled’ ripped off harvard’s ‘inner life of the cell’ animation. Retrieved April 6, 2011, from

[5] Smith, S. A. (2007). DI fellows – EXPELLED for plagiarism. Retrieved April 6, 2011, from

[6] Weiss, R. A. (2006). Protein synthesis: An epic on the cellular level. Retrieved April 6, 2011, from

[7] Feynam, R. (2008). Feynman: Take the world from another point of view (1/4). Retrieved April 6, 2011, from

[8] Losick, R. (2009). Sporulation in bacillus subtilis. Retrieved April 6, 2011, from

[9] McFadden, T. (2008). Hi, meiosis. Retrieved April 6, 2011, from

[10] Cadamole. (2010). A biologist’s mother’s day song. Retrieved April 6, 2011, from

[11] Vale, R. D. (2010). Ron vale: Molecular motor search. Retrieved April 6, 2011, from

[12] Darnell, T. (2009). The hubble ultra deep field in 3D. Retrieved April 6, 2011, from

Leave a comment »

  1. More favorites:

    Harvard’s Science in the News:

    Yale’s Science in the News:

  2. I liked your article is an interesting technology
    thanks to google I found you

  3. Many thanks for your usual great effort.

  4. One of my favorites:
    Sirius B, zooming on:


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