We sat down with the marvellous Simon Clark of SimonOxfPhys to chat about storytelling, talking about your mental health online and falling statues falling from the sky. You can watch our video with Jon Perry here, or with Ines Dawson here.

Transcript is below.

More about Simon

Simon is the founder of the Oxvlog project and has gone on to make wonderful YouTube videos from there. He is a current PhD candidate in atmospheric physics at the University of Exeter.

His channel was aimed at applicants to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge who came from unconventional backgrounds, such as himself (state school, first in the family to go to university, etc). The channel put out videos dispelling myths about Oxbridge and tried to encourage people to apply. Now that he's a PhD student at Exeter University, the focus has shifted towards vlogs on student/research life, his research and also more conventional YouTube stuff such as ‘Draw My Life’.

 “I wanted to do something to address the serious social issue of not enough people from ‘normal’ backgrounds getting in to Oxbridge. Essentially I wanted to give people the advice that I wish I had been given while applying, and to try and change the image that people have of unobtainable, elitist institutions”


Ali: Hello, everybody. Welcome to Collab Lab. We made a mini-series where we talk to three really big science YouTubers and asked them what they think makes a good science video, about how they got started and about what kind of advice they would have for people getting started themselves. In this video, we talk to Simon Clark from SimonOxfPhys about storytelling, about talking about your mental health online and about marble statues falling from the sky. Enjoy!

Simon: I'm Simon Clark, I just turned 26. My YouTube channel is SimonOxfPhys which is a terrible name that I've stuck with all these years and I kept the f from Oxford which is the worst decision I've ever made.

A: How long have you been making video content?

S: Um, I started my YouTube channel in January 2010 because I got into Oxford in October 2009 and I had term to, like, get my head around it. But I was trying to capture what it was like to be a new student there. Because the thing, if you don't go to a school, like a grammar school or a private school that sends a lot of people to Oxbridge, the thing you wanna know about and you can't find out about is what it's like to be there. 

A: How would you define your content? 

S: My content's a bit all over the place at the moment. I started doing informational videos about Oxford and Cambridge and answering people's questions. It was very much an education channel but about a very niche topic. And then I transitioned into doing that content in the form of vlogs.

A: What was the most obvious difference between those kind of videos?

S: Well the first one when it's an educational video, you have a script effectively. And you're saying these are the topics I wanna talk about and I'm gonna talk them to camera. Whereas with a vlog, it was experiential, it was about my boots on the ground perspective. You can put across the information via... experiential is the word, it's via your personal experiences with it. So I did a "Week In The Life" recently where I was talking about my research and instead of just saying "this is the problem I'm looking at and this is the technique I'm using to try and solve it and these are the problems I'm having". It was that interspersed with everything in my life. So putting it in context, it was saying I went into work and this is what I did today,  this is the problem I'm looking at and the next day saying well this is the technique I'm trying to use to solve it and then, you know, interweaving them. And I feel you don't have to dumb it down in that sense. You have to necessarily for the sake of length because otherwise you could do, like, an hour long video about all the woes that my code has been causing me. You know, you have to kind of keep it shorter for that purpose. But you don't have to make it less complex, I don't think. 

A: That's very interesting talking about contextualising your work, because I think a lot of the time, science stuff suffers from a lack of context.

S: Yeah, people view it as marble statues that drop from the sky. And in some cases that is true. Like Dirac's work was literally like "thunk". Perfect equation! Whereas for most of us, we're scrambling around in the dirt and trying to piece together bits of the jigsaw. And I feel like part of the interest, maybe the public interest is the wrong phrase to use, but part of the public interest is in that scrabbling as well as the picture that you're putting together. 

A: Yeah, I completely agree with you. Where do you draw the line between watchable and informative.

S: Well does there need to be a distinction made between the two? I feel like people can find content watchable and it can be educational at the same time. Someone like, ah there's a fantastic video by Bill Wurtz on History of Japan.

A: I've seen that!

S: And it's one of the most amazing things, like one of the most amazing educational videos you'll ever see and it's hilarious and you wanna watch it. It is so watchable but it's incredibly educational.

A: You're absolutely right. So it's more of a skill thing. It's how much education can you cram in while...

S: Yeah, and it's also the telling of it. Education at the end of the day is the same as storytelling except instead of stories it's just a series of information one after the other, sequentially put in somebody's head and it's meant to deliver and emotive response. Whereas if you're doing education, it's an intellectual response. It forms new patterns in your head. And in the same way that a story can stay with you, we all remember if we've seen Star Wars you think about the fact that Luke was brave and Darth Vader was evil and they fought. And you can think about a time when you were taught something, it's basically the same thing. So there's too much of a distinction, I think, made between storytelling and education. Really you should view them as being very very similar and you can use storytelling techniques in educating and you know, informing people in online video. And that Bill Wurtz video is a great example of that.

A: It is true though, that when you try and make something into a story, if you try to hard, you'll end up bending the facts to suit the story.

S: Yeah, the facts have to remain absolutely paramount. You know, things can be made as simple as possible but no simpler. 

A: So do you ever... I see!

S: Which is a quote from Einstein which has been simplified. 

A: Which video are you most proud of?

S: Well, I mean, the stuff which I'm most proud of isn't the science stuff, I think, it's, I did a series of videos about a year ago, I think, on mental health because I have a large audience of young people, a lot of people who are at Oxbridge or at very competitive universities or going for competitive universities and mental health is this great, unspoken about thing in our society. And particularly students, I think, it's really not talked about enough and I think the fact that I have, that I was able to use my platform to make these videos and get thousands of views on them, to just get people talking about it and make people aware of services, I think, is something that I'm most proud of using the channel for. In my fourth year of Oxford, I had some real problems with mental health which is one of the reasons I was so keen to make that series of videos. And as a result of that, I never really had the conversation with my parents about it, about the fact that I had these struggles, I never talked to them about it. And they watched the video and called me and you know, we finally had a chat and had this stuff out in the open. So it was almost like a therapy kind of exercise. But that moment when I sort of put the phone down, I think I cycled home, and I was just thinking about how it must have made them feel to, you know, and it made me redefine in a way like the boundaries where you put the personal stuff, keeping it personal on putting it on YouTube. That was like the nadir of how it made me feel personally.

A: So what's your YouTube lineage?

S: Oh er, well I mean I have a connection, almost like a family tie, I guess, which is I went to school with Charlie McDonnell. I think he was the main inspiration for me to just do it myself. And the other father figure is, father figures, is the vlogbrothers, Hank and John Green.

A: So that's your lineage. You peer group, do you hang out with a lot of YouTubers?

S: Um, I, there's a science YouTuber, a fantastic YouTuber called Sally Le Page who's an Oxford PhD student who I've met several times and we get along great. They always tell you that collaboration is the key to like, growing your channel because, you know, I have 30,000-40,000 subscribers, Sally has 30,000-40,000 subscribers then you know, it's natural if you do a video together you'll pour them across to each other, everybody wins. It's not a zero-sum game, at the end of the day. So from a  perspective of, like, your "career" on YouTube it's a great thing to do. But it's also just fun, you know, YouTubers do have something in common. There's some thread of insanity which goes between every one of us.

A: Right, really quick answers. So we're all, everybody who is thinking about starting a YouTube channel about communicating science like this. Why should they do it?

S: Uh, people should make YouTube videos to communicate science because it's very rewarding, it's a great skill set to develop, it's a great community to be a part of as we talked about and it gives the opportunity to make a real difference. 

A: One thing to definitely do if you're gonna go for it?

S: Have good audio.

A: And one thing to definitely avoid?

S: Hesitating and not going for it is a big mistake.

A: A big problem for scientists as well because the last thing you want to do is say something factually incorrect and often it puts the breaks on you, "I'm not sure if I can say that"

S: Yeah, just go for it. I wish I started making YouTube videos sooner. There was a lot of things that held me back and you know, there's nothing holding you back really. The only thing that's stopping you from doing it is you. So, you got the kit, you got the know-how, do it.

A: And one video that we should all watch?

S: You told me this a day ago and I still don't know if I have an answer.

A: 24 hours!

S: I feel like that history of Japan video is potentially one of the best videos I've ever seen on YouTube and it's almost certainly the best educational video so I think that's a really good one.

A: SimonOxfPhys, thanks so much.

S: No, my pleasure. Really really great.

A: Shall we shake hands? Yeah let's shake hands.

That's is a man brimful of ideas and in the time it took for us to release this film, he went from 40,000 subscribers to 70,000. So that is some vindication. Anyway, if you liked that video and you wanna see more then there's a link to Simon's channel here on screen as well as to an interview that we did with the oh so wise Jon Perry from Stated Clearly. And if you just stumbled across this video and you have no idea what's going on, but you could stand to see more then click subscribe and get involved. I've been Ali for Collab Lab, thanks so much for watching. Bye!