Professor David Evans performs a chemistry experiment for primary school students in Fuzhou, Fujian province, Sept. 6, 2018. [Photo/VCG]
With his distinctive white hair, lab coat and yellow-framed goggles, British chemistry professor David Evans has become an online sensation in China via the short-video sharing platforms Kuaishou and Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.
Better known by his Chinese name, Dai Wei — which is similar in pronunciation to his first name in English — Evans is in his 60s and has lived and worked in China for over 20 years. Now, he is an online celebrity, known for his engaging videos of chemistry experiments and science popularization efforts.
"I had two hobbies back then: chemistry and China," said Evans, who developed a keen interest in chemistry and the mysterious Eastern country in his teens. He later became a chemistry teacher and researcher at the University of Exeter after getting his doctorate at the University of Oxford.
Evans first came to China in 1987 to attend a chemical conference, after which he would visit the country once or twice a year for academic exchanges and touring. Getting first-hand experience of the huge changes occurring across the nation due to the reform and opening-up, he found a position at the Beijing University of Chemical Technology (BUCT) working with Prof. Xue Duan and settled down in the capital.
"This was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me. Based on China's evolution between 1987 and 1996, I thought China would experience even faster growth. Therefore, I seized the chance and came to China," he said.
At first, the labs in BUCT were poorly equipped, but as China's scientific research environment improved and funding increased, the team in BUCT began to make significant contributions to China's chemical industry. Evans became a distinguished professor at BUCT in 2002.
Evans was presented with the Friendship Award, given annually by the Chinese government to honor outstanding foreign experts in China, in 2001, and the China International Scientific and Technological Cooperation Award in 2005. He can now also speak fluent Chinese as well.
In 2011, he shifted the focus of his career from scientific research to science popularization.
Living and working in China, Evans gradually discovered that primary and secondary school students in the country had few opportunities to conduct chemical experiments — something which could dampen their curiosity toward chemistry.
In 2011, he received a £1,000 grant as chair of the Beijing Local Section of the Royal Society of Chemistry. He bought chemistry equipment and chemicals with the money, and began giving classes and doing experiments for primary and middle school students across China.
In 2018, Evans moved his experiments online. By now, his account "Dr. Dai's Lab" on Kuaishou has attracted over 9 million followers, while on Douyin, he has 841,000 fans. His eye-catching and educational experiments — coupled with fluent Chinese and humorous performances — have proved to be a hit online. Typical comments left by users include such messages as "I wish I'd had a chemistry teacher like you," "It turns out chemistry is really interesting," and "I really learnt a lot today."
"The urban and rural areas on the vast land of China have various development levels. Students in Beijing and Shanghai have more and easier access to science than children in the countryside," Evans explained. "The internet, however, can offer equal opportunities."
Evans sometimes uses everyday items to carry out experiments, giving instructions to his students to encourage them to conduct the tests themselves.
However, making videos is not as easy or straightforward as it looks. Each video might last anything from a few-dozen seconds up to a minute, but the preparation and clean-up afterwards takes much longer.
Now, Evans has his own science popularization lab in BUCT. Primary and middle school students from all over the country visit each week to conduct scientific experiments with students from BUCT.
After 25 years in China, Evans hopes to continue using chemistry to entertain and educate audiences across the country.