Teacher-turned-influencer Kong Man Jing on making science accessible

At first glance, Kong Man Jing doesn’t seem like your typical science communicator.

With her yellow polka dot dress, black-rimmed glasses, and quirky persona, the former science teacher comes across as a passionate kid eager to share her latest discovery about the natural world.

Biogirl MJ, as she prefers to be called, is on a mission—to bridge the gap between science experts and mainstream audiences. 

There's a gap between scientists and the public audience, and Biogirl MJ's goal is to bridge that gap.

In 2019, MJ co-founded and hosted Just Keep Thinking, the wildly popular science edutainment channel.

What started as a passion project exploded into a full-fledged media enterprise reaching 540,000+ followers, with reels racking up as much as 3M views.

Their signature blend of scientific know-how, pop culture relevance, and candid delivery inspires viewers so much so that they end up participating in beach cleanups and producing science content of their own.

This is how MJ’s journey started, and how her team at Just Keep Thinking continues to educate on social media.

Behind the Polka Dot Dress and Thick-Rimmed Glasses

MJ’s drive to make science accessible took root in the National University of Singapore, the only school offering an environmental biology course in the country.

“When I went in, there was less than 100 people in the course. I was like, oh, my goodness, this is the smallest course I’ve ever seen!”

While classes opened her eyes to Singapore’s natural heritage, the lack of broader engagement meant that knowledge stayed stuck in an echo chamber.

From discussions to sharing sessions and presentations, it was invariably the same handful of students rehashing familiar points after class.

“At one point, I asked myself ‘Why are we even bothering? I’m just preaching to the choir.’”

The now-content creator realized the education system didn’t prioritize biodiversity and environmental topics. Just as importantly, however, their outreach tactics struggled to resonate beyond the small circle of enthusiasts already in the know.

MJ’s mindset shifted after meeting her co-founder and partner, then a videographer who knew close to nothing about science and biodiversity.

As they went on nature walks together, he filmed her pointing to where polyps would come out from a coral or talking about a bird flying by.

Screencap of Biogirl MJ in a Singaporean garden in one of their YouTube videos

Screencap from Just Keep Thinking’s YouTube channel  | Biogirl MJ and a video guest looking for animals in a garden.

What started out as accidental fun quickly gained unexpected traction. Despite having zero followers, their first video on Facebook garnered 13,000 views.

“That’s when we realized people actually enjoy consuming this kind of content,” MJ says. People come up to her saying it’s refreshing to see and that it’s different from the usual social media posts on their feeds.

After a year and a half of juggling it as a side gig alongside her teaching job, she took the plunge to pursue Just Keep Thinking full-time.

“My ancestors were screaming from the ground!” she joked. In Asia, teaching is what one would consider an ‘iron rice bowl’ or stable job. MJ eventually explains why she made the bold move, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something I can call my own.”

Trading the Lectern for the Lens

The transition from structured teaching to freewheeling virtual presenting required adjustment for the educator.

“In science, we have a very fixed structure and the more fluffy words you use, the more professional you sound,” MJ explains, referring to academic research formats. “But with social media… if it doesn’t interest them, then you lose the audience.”

Academic and social content are differentiated, with the former being pages-long, structured, and technical, while the latter is simple, 1-minute-long, and free-flowing.

Attention-grabbing ‘hooks’ are important in social. If the first few seconds don’t seize attention, a viewer is lost to the wind. The rest of the video becomes useless.

Initially, MJ struggled with this shift. “As a teacher, I liked putting in all the research and tend to blabber on,” she admits. “My co-founder would say ‘No, no, no, this is too much information and will be boring to the mainstream audience.'”

Striking the right balance was a process of trial-and-error for the duo.

“We finetune each other’s work, or rather, the way we work and the way we think,” she says. “What you find interesting might not be what they find interesting,” she reflects.

MJ eventually saw social media as an opportunity to innovate science communication.

“I see it as an experiment, to be honest. That part eventually won me over.”

If an approach doesn’t garner the intended results or the desired engagement rates, adjust a variable and try again.

Taking on Bigger Sustainability Challenges

On December 2023, MJ attended the pivotal COP28. The climate conference opened her eyes to the complexities of sustainability, a domain that expanded far beyond her scope.

Her personal interest in climate was further catalyzed by Singapore’s Green Plan 2030, a whole-of-nation movement that aims to inculcate sustainability in all aspects of life.

After years of creating content on biodiversity, MJ is setting her sights on a more formidable challenge—making dense topics like climate change and sustainable practices resonate with the public.

“Biodiversity is like, ‘yeah, look at this cool creature,’” she says, but when it comes to climate, “these are not something you can visually see.”

While biodiversity lends itself to captivating visuals of animals, dense sustainability concepts feel far more abstract and nebulous.

Screencaps from Just Keep Thinking’s Instagram channel  | Recent reels on ugly foods, hot weather, etc.

Part of the struggle is debunking misconceptions that sustainability is limited to waste reduction and recycling.

“Whenever a school asks me to give a sustainability talk, I have to ask ‘Which specific pillar do you mean? The energy side? Food security? Because it’s such an overarching term covering every aspect of how we live,” MJ explains.

Even interlinked communities appear to be stuck in siloes.

“Biodiversity people have no idea what’s going on with sustainability. Sustainability people have no idea what’s going on with biodiversity. In Singapore, it’s two different communities and they don’t mix at all.”

With voice laced in surprise, MJ recounts how a sustainability expert she spoke to has never been on a nature walk. Another admitted how they did not know their local flora and fauna.

The content creator herself realizes there is much she ought to learn to take on these challenges.

“As a science communicator, I have to know my shit before I put it out,” MJ affirms.

Just Keep Thinking

If people don’t find science interesting from the start, perhaps seeing things through Just Keep Thinking’s lens will be that first step to changing their minds.

While their videos seem purely entertaining, educational elements are strategically selected and woven in. “At the end of the day, they had a good laugh, only to realize they learned something too,” MJ shares.

True to the channel’s name, Just Keep Thinking encourages one to keep questioning, learning, and thinking.

Quotes were lightly edited for readability.

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