The Viral TikTok Explaining mRNA Vaccines With ... Forks! : Short Wave We at Short Wave are sometimes a little too aware of how difficult it can be to explain science to a general audience. So when we came across Vick Krishna's viral TikTok breaking down how the mRNA vaccine works, we were impressed and immediately like, "We've got to get him on the show!" Today's that show. Vick breaks down the inspiration, the science and his newfound responsibility as an accidental science communicator.

Know someone else bringing science to the masses? Send us an email at shortwave@npr.org.
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The Viral TikTok Explaining mRNA Vaccines With ... Forks!

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The Viral TikTok Explaining mRNA Vaccines With ... Forks!

The Viral TikTok Explaining mRNA Vaccines With ... Forks!

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  • Transcript

MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RHITU CHATTERJEE, HOST:

Before the pandemic, Vick Krishna acted in some commercials, local New York theater, a couple big TV shows. And then stuck at home last summer, he found a new way to express his talents, the social media platform TikTok.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)

VICK KRISHNA: (As character) Do you mind doing an Indian accent?

(As character) Sure, of course.

(As character) Great - ready when you are.

(As character) Listen. Karen, the manager isn't here.

(As character) Are you even putting on an accent? How would your dad say it?

Usually, I've done a lot of skits about the acting world, along with skits about my South Asian culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)

KRISHNA: (As character) Oh, you want me to do the stereotypical accent that everybody thinks we sound like because that's what Hollywood has normalized.

(As character) Yes.

CHATTERJEE: And then earlier this year, Vick found some inspiration out of this very horrible year, the mRNA vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer authorized in the U.S. and in other countries around the world.

KRISHNA: So I first was very intrigued on how this worked. It's really ingenious.

CHATTERJEE: It is because, unlike many vaccines, see, like the flu or the measles vaccines, which use a weakened or inactivated virus to trigger an immune response, the new mRNA vaccines, they carry the instructions for our cells to make a harmless piece of the virus to have that same effect. But all that's easier said than understood.

KRISHNA: And I noticed this lack of understanding apparent in my, like, social circles with friends and family. Like, they all thought, like, oh, this is like, they're actually going to inject a coronavirus into you. But that's clearly not the case.

CHATTERJEE: So last month, Vick put out a TikTok, about a minute-long skit titled How The mRNA Vaccine Works.

So you made this video, and it went viral. I mean, it's got more than 7 million views so far. And you're - can I call you a TikTok star...

KRISHNA: (Laughter).

CHATTERJEE: ...Or TikTok sensation?

KRISHNA: I guess so. I mean, I don't think of myself as one, but like, I guess - the numbers, I guess, indicate that (laughter).

CHATTERJEE: Now, it is a really cool little video. And we'll talk about it more later. I loved it when I saw it. But I found out one more thing about my new friend Vick that made him even cooler. He, too, works at NPR as a systems administrator.

KRISHNA: Oh, gosh. I think it's - I just recently celebrated my 10 years with NPR a few months back.

CHATTERJEE: He's in our New York bureau, so we've never actually met face-to-face.

And is this strange, like, having worked at NPR for so long, now appearing in an NPR podcast?

KRISHNA: Yeah, I feel like my career at NPR has come full circle, from working with NPR to being on NPR, which is quite (laughter) - the turn of events I did not expect.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHATTERJEE: So on today's show, a little chat with Vick Krishna, actor, NPR colleague and a newly minted science communicator.

I'm Rhitu Chatterjee, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHATTERJEE: So Vick, I have to say, this video is a low production one but incredibly, incredibly fun to watch. It's a horror film parody. And you play all the characters. And your acting, if I can say so, is brilliant. And I think it's what makes the video work so well.

KRISHNA: Thank you.

CHATTERJEE: Can you describe who the characters are? Let's start with the villain.

KRISHNA: Yeah. So the villain is going to be the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. The protagonist, there's a few, I would say, the mRNA strand, which is what the vaccine is based on.

CHATTERJEE: The mRNA actually has the code, the instruction to make a key protein, the spike protein of the virus. Now, once the RNA gets injected into the body, it meets the ribosome, which is basically the cell's protein factory.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)

KRISHNA: (As mRNA) You need to make this.

(As Ribosome) What is it?

(As mRNA) It's a part of a virus.

(As Ribosome) A virus?

(As mRNA) Just a part of it, not the actual virus - they have fork hands, and they're coming.

CHATTERJEE: Fork hands - that's Vick's clever way of showing the spike protein of the coronavirus which helps the virus attach to our cells and infect us that way.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)

KRISHNA: (As Ribosome) Fork hands?

(As mRNA) Please.

CHATTERJEE: So the ribosome makes a whole bunch of the spike protein. And now enters our lead hero, the immune system.

KRISHNA: So the immune system's sort of like, it's this doctor-scientist character, wears a lab coat, loves to read. The immune system's always up to date with literature and articles, has a surveillance monitor with his laptop. So he keeps track of what's coming in the body and what's not.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)

KRISHNA: (As Immune System) What is this?

(As Ribosome) This messenger told me to make them.

(As Immune System) I've never seen these before. I'll make some new antibodies to get rid of them. Seize the forks.

CHATTERJEE: Now, the idea of using a fork, which is just sort of such a day-to-day object...

KRISHNA: Right.

CHATTERJEE: ...That to use it as the spike protein, I mean, it's just simply brilliant idea. How did you come up with it?

KRISHNA: So I was coming up with the idea, like, just sitting, like, on my couch. And I have, like, a lot of utensils from, like, either carry out or just from eating. And forks were on my table at the time. And it looked, like, menacing enough. It looked like a weapon. It pierces through things. It, like - it fit the job of a spike. Like, it has spikes on it. So as a casting director for this TikTok, I was like, yeah, forks, you got the job as spike protein (laughter).

CHATTERJEE: (Laughter) And did you also have a science background that was helpful? - because, I mean, there's this fairly complicated process - right? - kind of how cells make proteins, how viruses infect, how our immune systems responds. Did you have a science background that helped you translate this and sort of merger science and sort of storytelling experience?

CHATTERJEE: I'm always reminded the fact that I actually had failed biology in seventh grade.

KRISHNA: Oh, no way.

KRISHNA: Yeah. To date, it still haunts me 'cause I remember...

CHATTERJEE: (Laughter).

KRISHNA: ...My mom getting the phone call from my biology teacher, like, your son has failed biology. And it was really...

CHATTERJEE: Oh, no.

KRISHNA: ...Really embarrassing. So I feel like I redeemed myself finally a little bit (laughter).

CHATTERJEE: Time to send this video to your bio teacher.

KRISHNA: Yeah, exactly (laughter). But no, I mean, I have a computer science degree. So I don't have anything, like, actually related to this field, the medical field or chemistry or biology. It was really curiosity. I'm really - it's really fascinating to me.

CHATTERJEE: How long did this particular video take?

KRISHNA: Five days to, like, be completely happy with it and be, like, all right, I'm going to publish this.

CHATTERJEE: That's a lot of work for doing it kind of on the side.

KRISHNA: Yeah, yeah. It's definitely a passion of mine. I love acting and just creating. So it doesn't seem like work for me.

CHATTERJEE: And you put it out on TikTok. And at what point did you realize, oh, this is bigger than any of my other videos?

KRISHNA: Yeah. You start getting tagged and pinged. Like, yo, I saw you on Reddit or Imgur or - and it's like - friends were like, I saw you. I even had coworkers, like, you're on Reddit, man. Like, I didn't know you did this.

(LAUGHTER)

CHATTERJEE: So, you know, since this video went viral, you have made more of these science explainer videos about COVID-19 vaccines.

KRISHNA: Yeah. I was looking at my comments section after the first one, and there were still, like, large questions at hand that people wanted answers to. And I felt almost responsible to, like, answer them. Like, it's my - like, I should answer it because it's, like, this world I've created is resonating with people, and it's a good opportunity - further educate, further clarify.

CHATTERJEE: So what kinds of questions were you getting?

KRISHNA: Like, the top question was why two doses of mRNA vaccine, why not one dose? 'Cause I feel like the flu shot's one dose, right? So it's, like, to...

CHATTERJEE: Right.

KRISHNA: ...Clear up that. So I...

CHATTERJEE: Yeah.

KRISHNA: ...Did a video. I had, like - did more research to, like, really find the answer and how that answer fits in the world I built, and how could I answer that? So I made another skit, which actually did better than the first skit. It's, like, sitting at, like, 11 million views.

CHATTERJEE: Eleven million - that's amazing. I mean...

KRISHNA: Yeah.

CHATTERJEE: ...You're really, really making up for that failed seventh grade biology class here.

KRISHNA: Yeah, right. I totally am. I need a...

CHATTERJEE: (Laughter).

KRISHNA: ...Review on my report card (laughter).

CHATTERJEE: (Laughter) Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHATTERJEE: Thank you. Thank you so much. This was wonderful - and so excited to have you on the podcast.

KRISHNA: Great. Yeah, this was great - a lot of fun, Rhitu. Thank you so much.

CHATTERJEE: This episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez, edited by Viet Le and fact-checked by Rasha Aridi. Josh Newell was the audio engineer. I'm Rhitu Chatterjee. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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