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caption: Maynard Okereke, also known as the Hip Hop MD, aims to make science more approachable by connecting concepts like gravity to popular culture. 
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Maynard Okereke, also known as the Hip Hop MD, aims to make science more approachable by connecting concepts like gravity to popular culture.
Credit: Courtesy of Maynard Okereke

'How down are you' with space travel? UW grad Hip Hop MD on a mission for STEM leaders

Rocketing into space is an experience many have dreamed of, but few will actually experience.

Maynard Okereke is now among them.

Okereke is a University of Washington graduate who — like any number of children who have looked up at the stars and dreamed of floating among them — wanted to be an astronaut as a child.

A few months ago, he came as close as so-called "citizen astronauts" get these days — at least, as close as citizen astronauts who aren't billionaires get.

He was selected to take a zero gravity flight with the group Space for Humanity, a Denver-based non-profit with a stellar mission: Send a diverse group of citizen astronauts to space, where they can experience the "overview effect" some astronauts have reported during spaceflight.

It's a pronounced, cognitive shift in awareness brought on by seeing Earth from afar. A feeling Space for Humanity hopes will motivate these intrepid citizens to protect the planet. In essence, the goal is to change the world by changing everyday people's perspective, literally and figuratively.

That mission resonates with Okereke in much the same way it may have resonated with his younger self: "I want this for my 8-year-old self, curious and energetic, ambitious with an unjaded mind, blessed with immigrant parents."

And for the 18-year-old Okereke, whose global perspective was shaped by his upbringing as the child of Nigerian and Cameroonian immigrants, and who took that perspective to UW to earn his degree in civil engineering.

Today, now "38 years young," he uses his lived experience, knowledge, and penchant for entertaining as The Hip Hop MD.

You have to see it to get down with it.

"The whole purpose of the Hip Hop Science platform was to find a way to be able to speak to those students that felt left out, using music and entertainment and comedy — things we already are connected with through our day-to-day lives — to really be able to inspire this next generation to be a part of the future of science," he says.

In addition to his online lessons, Okereke also works with teachers and students, especially students of color, encouraging their interest and curiosity in STEM.

"Breaking that stereotypical norm of this old white guy in a lab coat, right?" he jokes. "Showcasing that scientists can be cool. Scientists can be into music and fashion. They can be stylish and dress up."

To do that, he infuses pop culture references. Just think how much more engaging high school physics class would have been if you learned about gravity from Nicki Minaj.

For example, in a recent video he dives into the concept of gravity by also dissecting a common saying: being down.

“Perhaps the most chronicled of quotable deals with a physics concept we experience daily — ‘being down.’ Whether it’s ‘down for the cause,’ or ‘down for the ride’ or simply wanting to know 'how it’s going down.' The mention of being down sparks more scientific concepts that one may think.”

It's all about making complex science — sometimes translated to "boring" in teen speak — more palatable by infiltrating social media with references to the latest movie, album or whatever kids these days are into.

That's all it takes to relate to your audience, Okereke says, by relating something like gravity to something they already connect with.

That may be easier said than done, though.

Okereke makes it look easy because he leads by example.

"To be able to have kids who can emulate that and see that as a realistic path that they can follow," he says, "that's the motivation... to be able to spark that curiosity and generate that excitement for future STEM leaders.