As a child growing up in Buffalo, Raven Baxter, a.k.a. “Raven the Science Maven,” loved seeing what would happen when she mixed two things together, sometimes raiding her mother’s cosmetics for nail polish, lotion and other ingredients. Although she knew she wanted to do something with science, she rarely heard about Black female scientists, whether in class or on television.
Now, at age 28, with a master’s degree in biology and a doctorate in science education, Baxter is often the one on television, explaining complicated science issues to a general audience. She’s on Twitter with more than 100,000 followers, as well as TikTok and YouTube. Her music video breaking down the immune system, “Antibodyody” (a take on Megan Thee Stallion’s hit “Body”), was inspired by a student who needed help on a microbiology exam — and got a personal shout out from the singer herself.
The “Science Maven” is in high demand — she’s doing a series on Facebook’s “Science and Culture” Bulletin site, and working with NASA’s TechRise Student Challenge. This fall, she has started a new job at the University of California at Irvine as director of culture and instruction for the School of Biological Sciences.
Before the move to California, she discussed the ways she uses social media to bring science to a new audience, her surprise at being a scientific role model, and how she sees her ADHD diagnosis as a scientific and creative advantage. The questions and answers have been edited for space.
Q: You mentioned that your mom grew tired of you using her Clinique lotion and nail polish to do experiments. Was there an experiment that actually worked?
A: I had gone through everything in the house, and one day my mom got me a science kit — it was one where you could make your own bouncy balls and I made one and it bounced. And I remember being so proud of myself, because those [type of balls] were in the quarter machines at the grocery store and I’m like, “Oh my God, I just made one at home.” It just blew my mind.
Q: Were there scientists you particularly remember who were an influence growing up?
A: Two people come to mind. Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and Al Roker, the weather guy from “The Today Show.” I loved hearing him talking about the weather and meteorology, and for a long time I wanted to be a meteorologist.
Q: Do you remember any female scientists from your childhood?
A: There weren’t any. I don’t think I learned that there were female scientists until I went to space camp when I was around 10 years old, and then I learned about Mae Jemison [the first Black female astronaut].
Q: Now you, a Black woman, are the picture of that scientist — in the media doing interviews, on social media, and in front of them in the classroom as Dr. Baxter.
A: Oh. I hadn’t thought about that. That’s really cool. I will have like a presence in many spaces. So by default I can totally see how I would become the image of a scientist.
Q: Tell me about your molecular biology research.
A: My work in graduate school involved looking at the evolution of structure and function of cellular proteins. My master’s thesis involved looking at proteins and how they’re structured, their sequences and how they evolve over time. I was looking at a molecular chaperone — it’s a protein that helps other proteins function properly. It turns out that this one chaperone protein had a twin — it’s called an isoform. I was looking at this isoform. At what point did it diverge and how did it evolve separately to have different functions? They were both chaperone proteins but they did different things to help proteins function in the cell.
Q: You've mentioned having attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. How do you incorporate ADHD into your life?
A: I have a lot of random thoughts that my mind spits out, and it happens more when I’m stressed. Like my songwriting. I have a deadline, but my brain is like, “That’s nice, but I have a great idea for a song that’s going to be a hit and that’s what you’re going to do right now.” I see that creative spirit as a treat, and although sometimes it’s really inconvenient, I try to work my life around that. I’m so glad people are enjoying the music I’ve created.
Q: Did you always know you had ADHD?
A: My mom knew when I was 6. I was very hyperactive, I was really a disruptive child. I was diagnosed then, but she never told me, I wasn’t put on medication. She just handled it. She was great. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I really started to have roadblocks with my attention and started to struggle in school. That’s when she told me I’d been diagnosed with ADHD as a child. I was retested and rediagnosed and started taking medication. It does help. Now I take it as needed, and it does a great job helping me when I need it.
Q: Tell me about your Facebook newsletter.
A: They reached out to me and . . . wanted me to be part of their new Bulletin platform, which is for independent writers, to share my thoughts about science and culture. I’ll also be hosting biweekly audio chats — it’s like Zoom but no cameras — talking about science. We’ll be talking about everything from “Do aliens exist?” to elitism in science.
My goal is to build a science community, and Facebook has 3 billion users. I want to do all I can to make sure they are informed and involved.
Q: The challenge with live forums is that people can get kind of nasty.
A: The problem with social media is that no one has figure out how to protect marginalized people. But I’m not going to leave 3 billion people out just because I have an issue.
Q: Are you surprised at how science and scientists have become so doubted in so many place across the country during the pandemic, about the vaccines, masks?
A: I am not surprised. I do not feel that the current and past states of our school systems have been focused enough on science literacy for it to be a surprise. We must learn from what is happening today regarding trust in science to move forward and build the country’s science literacy through education
Q: You also have a fashion line: Smarty Pants. I did covet your boots with the planets on them in one video.
A: I talk a lot about being yourself and not being afraid to be vibrant and loud and fun. Maybe it’s through rhinestone safety goggles or a rhinestone shirt that says “scientist” on it — this is one way you can shine in science, and we don’t see enough of that.