Social media star Hashem Al-Ghaili: “I love sharing knowledge with others”
Name: Hashem Al-Ghaili
Lives in: Berlin
Country of origin: Yemen
Period in Germany: 4 years (as of January 2017)
Educational and research institution: Jacobs University Bremen
Occupation: Director of content, Futurism
On his Facebook page and YouTube channel, Hashem Al-Ghaili posts videos on the latest scientific developments and technological innovations, with English subtitles. The DAAD alumnus and experienced science communicator now has around seven million online followers. But if his parents had got their way, the 26-year-old would now be working as a farmer in Yemen. In this interview, he reveals some of the secrets of his online success.
You were born and brought up in Yemen and your father wanted you to take over the family farm. Instead, you’ve become a biotechnologist and Facebook star. How have you got to where you are today?
Hashem Al-Ghaili: I was interested in the natural sciences from a young age and read lots of books on science as a child. I have always had a real passion for the subject. But I also worked on the family farm. In Yemeni society, one’s fate is more or less predetermined and it is very difficult to follow your own path. But for me it was always important to be able to make my own decisions. When the Yemeni Ministry of Higher Education offered me a scholarship to study biotechnology in Pakistan, I insisted on taking up their offer because I wanted to boost my career opportunities. My parents have since accepted my decision and are proud of what I have achieved.
Some of your videos have made a real impact. One of the most popular is an introduction to the “Hippo Water Roller”, a rolling water tank that makes it easier for people in Africa to transport drinking water.
Hashem Al-Ghaili: I really loved the concept of the Hippo Water Roller. It helps lots of people. I was surprised by how few people had heard of it, especially as it has now been around for more than 25 years. So I produced a video using film material from the charity that makes the roller and distributes it to people in developing countries. The video created quite a buzz in the media and lots of people donated money so that more rollers could be made. As a result, a large number of people now have better access to drinking water. It was a wonderful experience. The charity thanked me for my help, but I made the video purely out of passion for explaining science and technology, not because I expected it to make the kind of impact it did.
Hashem Al-Ghaili’s Hippo Roller video
In December 2015 you had around 64,000 fans on Facebook. You now have seven million. How have you managed that?
Hashem Al-Ghaili: Facebook is constantly changing and you have to be flexible and adapt to changes as they happen. Around that time, Facebook changed the way it prioritised videos. I responded to this by placing even more emphasis on high quality images and footage. I make short videos, less than one and a half minutes long, and use very straightforward language. And as my videos tell stories using visual means, viewers can get an impression of what the video is about even if they don’t understand the English subtitles. If lots of users share the videos, you can build a large fan base quite quickly. I also take care to use really good music in my videos. I have already spent over a thousand euros on music licences. But it’s worth the investment because I love my work and it feels great to be giving people access to great science content. Also, some musicians are now offering their music free of charge.
From 2013 to 2015, you completed a Master’s degree in Molecular Biology at the Jacobs University of Bremen on a DAAD scholarship. What effect has that had on your work?
Hashem Al-Ghaili: Doing a Master’s in Bremen was an important step as it opened up lots of new opportunities for me. My bachelor‘s degree in Pakistan gave me a solid theoretical foundation, but I wasn’t able to gain any lab experience there. This was different in Germany, where I had access to laboratory equipment and modern technology. Crucially, it was there that I learned how to communicate scientific subject matter to others. This has helped me to attract a wider audience on Facebook.
Jacobs University Bremen: Hashem Al-Ghaili’s Graduation Speech 2015
What are you working on at the moment?
Hashem Al-Ghaili: I recently started broadcasting live videos on Facebook in which I give presentations on a pre-prepared topic. It’s a great feeling to speak live to an audience of 9,000 people.
You said last year that you were intending to set up a crowdfunding project. How is that going?
Hashem Al-Ghaili: Yes, my next goal is to produce some longer documentaries. I am currently looking for a company to co-produce an initial five-minute documentary. The idea is that this film will generate enough interest to enable me to start a crowdfunding project with a view to making a longer documentary. The focus will be on ‘impossible science’ – things that science and technology can do that the general public are not yet aware of. A space lift, for example, that can transport rockets from earth into space. The aim is not to use existing video material but to produce new videos and animations from scratch.
Discussion on Science Communication
Conducting research is a process that often takes place behind locked doors as scholars fine tune their experiments, commit to quality management, and analyse their results. Once a study is complete though, the next aim is to reach as many interested people as possible. Science communication is one way of doing that.
What are the particular challenges of science communication? How do you make your own research more accessible to both fellow researchers and the general public? Have you ever taken a class or completed training in science communication? Tell us about your experiences in the Community group “Studium und Forschung”!