By Elisabeth Costanzo Stewart
If you were in elementary or middle school during the 90’s or early 00’s, you can easily remember the genuine thrill that you felt at the sight of a television cart being rolled into your classroom. It only took one kid to start the chant, and before you knew it, your class was cheering “Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill!” in unison. While most of us were simply excited to watch a Bill Nye the Science Guy episode to break up the monotony of a regular school day, for Debbie Miller (PGP: she/they/he), it was different. Debbie wasn’t just watching a twenty-five minute video on the “Phases of Matter,” they were watching their idol do exactly what they wanted to do when they grew up. Like Bill Nye, Debbie wanted to make learning about science engaging and digestible for viewers of all ages. Just about two decades later, Debbie is doing just that, but unlike Bill Nye’s VHS tapes, Debbie’s content is presented to over 120k of their followers on TikTok.
Debbie has always been both a creative and scientific thinker, with both hemispheres of their brain vying for their attention. After graduating from Seton Catholic Central High School, Miller attended the University of Rochester and graduated with a degree in molecular genetics. Like many fellow scientists, Debbie went directly to work in a lab, but found that they were far too extroverted for the lab’s quiet, solitary workspace. Miller knew that they needed to be a student again, but wasn’t sure if they were ready to jump into a graduate program.
“I had always planned to continue studying human genetics at the graduate level, but at that time, funding in science was lackluster and I still had this nagging desire to explore some of my creative interests,” explained Miller.
Instead, Miller came to SUNY Broome and crafted a course load based on their interests and on professional skill sets that they wanted to develop. Debbie beefed up in old favorites like Anatomy and Physiology, and tackled new academic pursuits like Public Relations and Mobile Web App Development. Many of the courses that Miller was taking aligned with SUNY Broome’s New Media Design certificate, so they opted to complete the full program and get a comprehensive overview of the newest technologies within digital media.
Miller had always dabbled in digital media for fun, but their Social Media Campaigns class was a game changer. “That class really taught me about the power of social media and the marketing/analytics side of it. At the conclusion of the class, my version of Bill Nye The Science Guy, #howboutscience, was on twitter, instagram, and facebook,” said Miller.
While still a student, Debbie accepted a position in SUNY Broome’s Learning Assistance Department as a professional tutor and supplemental instructor in anatomy and physiology, chemistry, and organic chemistry. Miller’s initial plan was to take scientific concepts that consistently stumped the SUNY Broome students that they were tutoring and create digital media content to teach those scientific lessons in a short, fun, and clear way. But just as #howboutscience content was about to take off, the world stopped.
In February of 2020, Miller began to read briefings posted by the World Health Organization (WHO) about the presence of a highly contagious virus that had the potential to spread quickly throughout the world. While the majority of the population read the headlines and dismissed the notion of immediate danger, Miller fervently began to research.
“My degree in molecular genetics was coming to life in front of me. I was already reading science journal articles and papers weekly for fun anyway, but now I had a very specific focus to my study. My hyperfixation on Covid-19 data and research provided a source of comfort for me during such an uncertain time. Soon, I became the primary source of information on Covid-19 for friends and family who were confused and overwhelmed by all of the conflicting information that they were receiving online via various news sources. That’s when I realized that maybe I could help a broader audience to better understand the virus that was literally shutting down our world,” said Miller.
Miller, via #howboutscience, began to create thirty to sixty second mini lessons on Covid-19. Each video presented digestible, research-based, content on topics ranging from how the immune system works, to social distancing, to virus variants. During the early months of the pandemic, there was a substantial disconnect between public understanding and scientific findings. As a result of that confusion, Miller’s #howboutscience videos on TikTok turned out to be just what thousands of people were looking for.
Debbie’s TikTok videos continued to gain progressive traction as they established a trusting, honest relationship with their viewers. While Debbie certainly never wanted the world to experience a global pandemic, a positive result of Covid-19 was that it allowed Debbie to do their dream job – spread science to the masses and make it fun. The masses hit the millions in early November of 2021 thanks to Miller’s understanding that viruses are designed to mutate. Miller focused their research on the genetic sequence of the virus and noticed what would later be titled, the Omicron variant. Debbie’s video discussing the then upcoming variant instantly went viral to over two million viewers.
“There are definitely moments when I am taken aback by the positive impact of my videos. I highly encouraged my viewers to get the booster vaccine (based on research) and I received thousands of comments from people thanking me for my information and encouragement. That genuinely amazes me,” shared Miller.
Miller’s experiences within the world of social media haven’t all been positive. Even “the Deb Factor” isn’t immune to negative comments from the public. Instead of focusing on the not-so-nice feedback from some of the online community, Debbie chooses to only endorse civil conversations and are happy to answer any questions that they can. Miller also makes an effort to highlight the positive opportunities that they have to connect with immunologists, epidemiologists, and virologists to disseminate sourced information and advocate for things like support for Covid-19 long-haulers and funding for continued scientific research.
After a much needed mini-mental health break from creating content, Debbie is back to sharing micro-science lessons on TikTok and is applying to graduate schools.
“My goal is to continue building #howboutscience beyond TikTok. I’d love to, and have been encouraged to, develop a podcast for young listeners and of course, I still have my Bill Nye-esq program dreams,” shared Miller.
If you are interested in learning more about the power of social media, consider joining SUNY Broome’s next Social Media certificate cohort. SUNY Broome is still accepting applications for the fall 2022 semester. The application is FREE and takes about ten minutes to complete.