If your social media algorithm points you toward STEM, bioengineering, or cancer research, there’s a chance you might come across The Mad Bioengineer on TikTok. You might even be one of his 33,000 followers. With contagious curiosity, infectious demeanor, and a resolve to empower lifelong learners, Craig Richard has built an influential presence on one of social media’s most dynamic and debated platforms.

“It all started during the pandemic,” says Richard. “Throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies, I directed my passion for science communication and education into local community-based programs such as the Boys and Girls Club at Louisiana State University (LSU) or ENVISION here at Illinois. But then COVID shut all that down. I began to look for other avenues, and TikTok appeared as a viable option. I began posting videos, and fairly quickly, I had a following.”

Craig Richard, a recent Ph.D. graduate in Rohit Bhargava’s Chemical Imaging and Structures Lab, is now a postdoctoral scholar focused on expanding the CCIL’s education and outreach.

Not only did TikTok provide a platform for Richard to educate others about the wonders of science found in everyday life, but it proved to remedy a problem Richard experienced in academia. “I found that the further along I went in my academic career, the less and less I saw people around me who looked like me,” he shares. “On TikTok, I’ve developed relationships and a supportive network of people who look more like me and share many my experiences as a first-generation college student.”

It certainly isn’t his charisma alone that has earned him a loyal following. Richard is a brilliant scientist who has been building his STEM toolkit for years. “My journey into bioengineering began at a young age. I was one of those kids outside looking at bugs or taking things apart to see how they worked, but maybe not always putting them back together,” laughs Richard. “It was written in stone that I would become a scientist or an engineer of some kind,” he acknowledges. “In high school, we had a career exploration project in which we found someone working in our area of interest and shadowed them for a semester. I looked at the list of possible careers, and bioengineering jumped out at me. I shadowed a bioengineering faculty member at LSU, participating in plant research, which sparked a curiosity for genetics. The more I explored bioengineering, the more I fell in love.”

Richard admits that as a first-generation college student, his family was instrumental in spurring his education. “With that motivation behind me, I put in the work, applied to LSU, and received a full-ride scholarship,” he says. “I was in the LA-STEM Research Scholars Program, an undergraduate STEM program, sponsored by NSF, that helped students like me earn a terminal degree. It set me up for a lot of success down the road. It wasn’t just academic-focused, though. It supported interpersonal relationships, finances, navigating interactions with faculty, and more. That cohort was like a second family to me, and many of my friends and colleagues from the program are still a part of my life.”

Richard’s success is a living witness to the importance of such programs. “Unfortunately for LSU students, the NSF funding dried up, and the program no longer exists,” explains Richard.

While Richard’s STEM cohort was instrumental in his development, he also vigorously pursued internships to further hone his unique scientific interests.

Richard traveled from Baton Rouge, Louisianna to Cornell University in New York for his first internship, working on the genetic relationships between soybean and soybean plant relatives. That internship increased his interest in genetics, but he realized plant research alone wouldn’t be his wheelhouse. Next, Richard traveled north to the cornfields of east central Illinois for a nanoscience internship in CCIL Director Rohit Bhargava’s laboratory. There, he designed gold nanoparticles to visualize breast cancer mutations. This project was nearer the mark for Richard, who enjoyed working at the nexus of biology, cancer, and nanotechnology. Thirdly, the dedicated young scientist journeyed to Grenoble, France, where he used gold nanoparticles and DNA linkers to study surface plasma and resonance imaging-based assays.

“After all that, I asked myself, ‘How can I combine all these different interests into one thing?’” he says. It was an audacious question for some, but Richard was unwavering in his pursuit. “My experience at Illinois stood out to me. It provided what I was looking for in my scientific career. I enjoyed the research, knew the people, and had a sense of what to expect from graduate school.”

Richard had one additional motivation to pursue a career specifically in cancer research. “During college, my grandpa was diagnosed with cancer. He passed away shortly after his diagnosis,” reflects Richard. “So, I applied for the doctoral program in Prof. Bhargava’s Chemical Imaging Lab. He had seen my work ethic and capacity. I was accepted and welcomed enthusiastically.”

Today, he is as zealous for science and communication as ever. Richard earned his doctoral degree this past December, completing a Ph.D. thesis on cancer nanotechnology. “I designed a nanoparticle probe to study the tumor microenvironment using infrared spectroscopy. I then loaded nanoparticles with this probe and decorated the nanoparticle surface with molecules that could target specific proteins in the tumor microenvironment, like cancer biomarkers, for example,” says Richard.

“With this method, you can get chemical and biomarker information that would normally require immunohistochemistry or immunofluorescence,” he explains. “This allows us to develop a ground truth with one modality. You no longer need to take a tissue section or an adjacent section, followed by one-time processing with one and one-time processing with another, after which you attempt to combine all that information. Now, you have all the information in one place and can use that information to train a model, for example, that might better predict or stage cancer or better differentiate tissue types within that tissue microenvironment. Ultimately, this method provides more information about the cancer context than before.”

Now a fresh Ph.D. graduate, Richard will build upon years of education, research, interpersonal capacities, and communication skills with role as an Educational Engagement Postdoctoral Scholar with the CCIL. “My postdoc will focus on science communication, education, and outreach. I’m going to focus less on active research in the lab and more on developing relationships with the local community to build bridges between the community and cancer center research on campus,” explains Richard.

But that’s not the only place you’ll find him sharpening and sharing his passion for science and communication. The “Mad Bioengineer” continues sharing the wonders of science with his TikTok audience. One of the places he enjoys doing that is in the kitchen.

“My love for cooking is synergistic with my love for science. Some of the most engaging content I produce is right there in the kitchen. There’s a lot of science happening in your everyday life that you don’t appreciate until someone points it out, and you say, ‘Cool! I didn’t know that!’ I want others to learn to appreciate that. One of those places is in the kitchen,” shares Richard. “While making a gumbo the other day, I was preparing the roux—a mixture of oil and flour—and as you heat the mixture, it darkens. That’s a Maillard reaction, the same as when you cook a steak and get a char with all that flavor and color. In another recent video, I made a homemade limoncello and taught about a compound in lemon rind called limonene that is also used in cancer research.”

When asked if he had any final words for young aspiring scientists in a situation like his when he was younger, Richard shares with conviction, “If you don’t believe in yourself, others aren’t going to. You need to be your own biggest advocate. The only person who can stop your dreams is you.”

Editor’s notes:

This story was written by Jonathan King, CCIL Communications Specialist

You can read one of Craig Richard’s doctoral research presentations, “Metal Carbonyl Loaded Nanoparticles for Breast Cancer Biomarker Detection,” here.

You can follow The Mad Bioengineer on TikTok @crgrichard