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Science experiments and endless enthusiasm led a physics professor to TikTok stardom

During a Summer Science Safari demonstration at Texas A&M University in 2022, Dr. Tatiana hits a knife down to make the potato go up. It's not magic, it's inertia.
Ryan Carmichael
During a Summer Science Safari demonstration at Texas A&M University in 2022, Dr. Tatiana hits a knife down to make the potato go up. It's not magic, it's inertia.

College professors these days face an ever-higher bar to grab the attention of their students, forced to compete with the stimuli of smartphones and laptops in large lecture halls.

But when your professor is a social media star, it's a little bit easier.

Tatiana Erukhimova, who teaches physics at Texas A&M University, has managed to get her students, as well as future generations, excited about the science.

Known as "Dr. Tatiana" to her students and online fan base, the professor performs physics tricks with boundless energy and enthusiasm. Videos of her theatrical demonstrations have racked up hundreds of millions of views across TikTok and other social media platforms.

In the kid-friendly videos, Erukhimova uses a range of everyday objects in her experiments, from pingpong balls and toilet paper to marshmallows, bicycle wheels and hair dryers. Her department's YouTube page has about 2.5 million subscribers, an astronomical following eclipsing even the renowned Aggie athletics program.

She credits the university marketing team's videos of her lessons for her social media success.

"This is just one of our ways to connect with people to make physics accessible to people," she tells NPR.

As part of the physics department's extensive outreach program, she also puts on shows almost every week teaching physics to K-12 students. The sooner kids are taught physics and taught it well, the better, she says.

It's clear she knows what it takes to get young people excited about a hard science. But it wasn't always that way.

When she first started teaching college freshman classes almost two decades ago, she says she struggled to grab the attention of her younger students. She was used to teaching juniors, as she had for a few years prior to that. By junior year, students enrolled in physics are committed to learn, she says. With them, she could walk through the syllabus on day one, and still command the room. But when it comes to teaching a large lecture hall of 100-plus first-year students, first impressions are make or break.

"I did not grab their attention on the first day — that was my mistake," she says. "I missed this opportunity to bond with them from the very beginning, and then it took me a while to find my voice."

Her strong Russian accent — what she once perceived to be a hurdle to connecting with her students — has now endeared her to fans online.

By the second semester, she found her footing, tweaking her approach to make her lecture halls feel smaller, and get her students engaged.

The key, she says, has been to make herself approachable and her instruction personal.

"Talk to your students before [and] after class, walk up and down the stairs when you teach your class rather than stay on the stage. And don't just lecture, talk to them — make it interactive. When you ask the question, you expect the answer," she says. "If you don't have the answer, you go to them and you still make them work with you – it's not always easy, but when you're close to them, it's definitely easier."

And, of course, add showy demonstrations.

"These demonstrations often help students to connect these abstract concepts with real life," she says.

She's earned more than just recognition on social media. In October, she was honored with a national award for science outreach "for leadership in bringing the excitement of physics through innovative education programs," including the well-attended annual TAMU Physics and Engineering Festival and the highly popular physics videos on social media.

Physics department head Grigory Rogachev says Erukhimova's outreach work has helped bring visibility to the department, which he says has translated to a boost in endowments and physics major applicants.

"She's a performer in addition to being a scientist," he says. "And that is rare in the community."

Erukhimova grew up surrounded by physics. She's from Nizhny Novgorod, about 250 miles east of Moscow, known for its institutions with superb physics education. Both of her parents were physicists. She went on to get her Ph.D. in applied physics at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Two years after joining Texas A&M as a postdoctoral researcher in 2001, she jumped at the first opportunity to teach.

As a leader in a STEM field in which women are underrepresented, she's become a role model for some. Erukhimova led a 2021 study that busted the stereotype that men outperform women in physics courses.

Afiya Dhanani attended Texas A&M University after seeing Erukhimova's videos online.

"Watching Dr. Tatiana do the experiments online, especially since she was a female leader, was more inspiring for me to even go into physics," Dhanani said in an interview with CBS Mornings.

That's all Erukhimova says she can hope for: making physics less intimidating, and more exciting.

"What will they remember 10, 15 years, 20 years later?" she wonders. "If they remember my class, I could not ask for a better reward."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Emma Bowman