Greg and Mitch, the creators of AsapSCIENCE, met at the University of Guelph while studying biology. After finishing school they blended their obsession with visual art, film editing, and science to create a YouTube channel with more than 9 million subscribers and 1 billion views. They were named Forbes 30 Under 30 and wrote a New York Times best-selling book, but are still most proud of educating the masses about their favorite thing: science. Mitch sat down to tell us more.
How do you describe the content you make?
Our tagline is “Making Science Make Sense.” For us, it's all about finding the intersection of what people already experienced in their life—whether or not they think it's science, whether or not they think science is too hard or too boring, or whatever—and just making it accessible to them through their own lens. It's in the hope that everyone can see that science is everywhere, science is interesting, and there are intersections with science everywhere, like music and art. So it's just trying to express that through the content we make.
Sometimes we're just being silly—sometimes on TikTok, we're just dancing with something like existential dread about climate change in text on top. And a lot of it bleeds into being like, “Hey, look, you don't have to be the prototypical scientist to be interested in science.” I think that also fits the queer mold by being like, “Hey, you don't have to be a straight, cis, white dude to fit into the mold of science.”
What's challenging or surprising about doing this work?
I think being on the internet is challenging in and of itself. We've been doing this for nine and a half years, and the internet has changed and evolved a lot. But definitely having to be engaged and connected all the time is probably one of the biggest challenges. At a normal job, you get to have your 9 to 5. We do try to structure our lives in a way where we have our working hours, but you're always connected to Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, everything's out there, and so I think we're constantly thinking about it. It's like learning when and where to separate yourself from that and how much of yourself to give. I'm glad I'm not a vlogger or a lifestyle person in the sense that I'm already like, “It's crazy. It's crazy. It asks so much of you.” It's been about trying to find that proper balance to have a normal life in the real world, and then also our online identities.
What do you consider when you're making or publishing LGBTQ+-related content, whether it's some general like a scientific explanation, or something that relates to you personally? And how has that changed over time?
Our channel on YouTube started as a faceless channel. It was always animation, just hands drawing. We'd still tackle concepts or topics that stepped into spaces and always wanted to be queer-friendly, so even when we were drawing stick figures, we would represent families as not just heteronormative families. That upset people even back then. They'd be like, “Were those two women holding hands in that stick-figure family?!” and we'd be like, “It's crazy how much people would care about that.”
So we've always thought about it [and] I think that was part of the impetus for us to put ourselves in our content. We're two proud, queer guys, and we want to be representing that space. With the people that were meeting us in real life and coming to events and stuff, it always stuck out how many people were queer and just being like, “Thank you so much for representing what you do.” It was challenging transitioning and putting ourselves in our videos more because there was a bit of backlash. A lot of people who didn't know we were gay weren't really aware of that until we were in our videos. But I think it did help transform our content, because it's always a reminder—and a sad reminder in a way—that there's still that challenge out there.
We're lucky and privileged enough to live in Toronto, where it's a massively progressive city in a really progressive country, no less. And so in our personal lives, we don't always face that sort of turmoil. But online, we're constantly reminded of that. So for us, we were always making content that, if it wasn't explicitly relating to issues like social issues and finding the intersection between science and social issues—whether that's like, “the science behind being gay,” “is there a gay gene and should that matter?,” “the science of being transgender," even things like “the science of abortion” and thinking of how often homophobia is through a lens of sexism (like, “Oh, you're a man who acts like a girl, like why is that a bad thing?”)—even when we weren't doing videos like that, we knew it was important to become more comfortable as ourselves in our videos, and just represent who we were, which has always been a challenge.
It's a natural human instinct, I think, to not want to be criticized, so you can scroll through the hundreds of comments that are good and see the one that's like, “Why am I listening to a gay guy teach me about evolution?” and it can hurt, but it matters more, I think. For us, expanding beyond YouTube has meant that as well, and a lot of that even only happened in the last couple of years or so, where we were like, “You know what, we're gonna lean into this more, we want to represent who we are. We want to talk about things that matter beyond just the science-bro culture of like, ‘That's so cool.’” So I think we try our best. The new platforms like TikTok have allowed us to thrive, and people often comment on our TikTok, “Whoa, this is a lot different than your normal YouTube content.” But I think that allows for a bigger intersection with people as well.
How has the decision to be more out there impacted you personally?
It's been interesting, especially with the pandemic happening, and not really being in public very much for a couple of years now. This last summer we were out, and it was kind of jarring how many people came up to us. This might be a generational thing, so now the kids that are in university are coming up being like, “I have literally watched you since I was 11 years old, and I'm queer and in STEM now.” It's not always that story, but I think we're still trying to take that in, especially because it's still a pandemic, and we don't see that many people.
I think when you work on the internet, you don't really see it or feel it. Numbers just are numbers. Like a hundred thousand views or a million views or whatever, it's always exciting when it happens, but if you stood in front of a thousand people who said, “I loved your video,” that would be really impactful. So what I've noticed is the more we've been engaged and involved personally in our videos and infusing our personality, yes, it comes at a bit of a cost—and a cost that we've accepted—which is that we're gonna lose the homophobes who don't want to see two gay guys explain science to them, but the benefit has been the deeper connection with the people who do like our stuff and feel seen from it or just have their perspective seen through ours, and then the in-life interaction is much more than just, “I love your videos,” and has become more, “thank you guys for being queer people in STEM, that made me choose to go and do my degree or PhD," or something.
Is there anything specific you'd like LGBTQ+ scientists to know about your content?
Not necessarily about our content, but just that all of their content, if they make it, matters so much. More and more I'm seeing queer scientists putting themselves out there online, especially with these new platforms. Unfortunately, YouTube remains a very male-centric, heterocentric space, and that's been a challenge for us. But these newer spaces like TikTok (and maybe it's generational), seem to be so much more welcoming to these groups, and even Instagram. I just think it matters so much, and it's so nice to see so many people putting themselves out there. Even during this pandemic, there have been so many people putting out information. It's not that you always have to be like, “Hey, I'm going to talk about queer science.” I love that, and that's so important, but just being yourself and representing yourself is so meaningful.
We've been on YouTube for almost 10 years now, and I could count on one hand (barely) other queer people in the space, whereas on an app like TikTok now I'm like, “Oh my god, I can count a lot of them, and a lot who are successful.” And there are probably so many more who I'm not aware of and who are finding support and success. That kind of stuff gives me a lot of hope, and I hope it continues
Do you have any favorites you want to shout out?
Off the top of my head, there's Labs Shenanigans' TikTok, there's Kyne who's a drag queen on TikTok, and Katie Mack who wrote the book, The End of Everything— she's an astrophysicist, and now she has a TikTok and she's really popular on Twitter.
Do you have a specific video that you'd recommend a new viewer start with?
What most people end up knowing us for often is our music videos. So if you're just trying to have a little fun, we have a Dua Lipa parody that's called Lab Rules. We have The Periodic Table Song that people love and are happy to recite, and The Pi Song. But there are definitely lots of videos around social issues, around being gay, being queer, and how science can validate the feelings of people who go through that, gay uncle hypothesis, and stuff. But outside of that, I think just go down the rabbit hole.
Do you have anything coming up that you want to mention?
At the end of October, we have a YouTube original show coming out called Shut It Off, ASAP. It's a show about climate change and addressing the climate crisis, where we tried to go off grid and see what we could do with it. It is still on YouTube, but it was the first time we'd ever really worked with a big production company, and it's filmed as though it's like a TV show, and so that has been a very fun process for us. Even though it's still going on YouTube, it was totally a whole new world working with more than just the two of us trapped in our house together. It was very fun living on a farm as well. I think that's the next biggest thing for us.
Is there something you haven't had a chance to do that you're hoping to do?
We have a lot of ambition to still explore the intersection of art and science. I think there's a little bit of untapped space for us—for myself with music, even though we do some songs, and for Greg with art and screenwriting—to meld that world a little more and see where that goes. I'm not sure exactly what form that will take. We have some ideas on our end, but it's like, “How can you make science education even cooler?” Because a lot of our songs have to resort to being a bit cheesy and being self-aware and it's a little bit cringey to be learning science through song, and so for me in this new space I'm like, “Can you get around that? Can you make music that can also be really powerful or catchy or engaging and also teach people? Can you make art that can do that? Could you make a scripted show that could do that, that teaches people but's still as engaging as another show?”
Is there anything else you were hoping to talk about?
I think it's so cool that you guys highlight queer STEM creators, because I think obviously that's an underrepresented community. It was definitely hard at the beginning when we started, even being in spaces that are predominantly just straight guys. And I feel like that's changing a lot, and I feel really excited about that change.
But YouTube as an example—we made a video specifically about racism in STEM, but it was about the top 30 STEM creators on YouTube all being men except for one girl, and not one of them was a person of color. And so just being able to stop and recognize that and then acknowledge why representation matters is so important, and how that trickles far beyond just someone being an entertainer or a science communicator.
For all the people you've featured and the ones yet to be featured, it's really awesome that people have the bravery to do that and to put themselves out there. And they'll probably face challenges that not everyone has to face, but hopefully, it just makes us all stronger for it.