About

Peat Coring in Belize

Public domain image (U.S. Geological Survey)

I’m a scientist who has discovered the value of using video to show how I conduct research, to illustrate my methods, and to explain science concepts. I’ve spent the last forty years conducting research and using traditional outlets to report my work: technical reports, journal articles, book chapters, and conference presentations. These activities were necessary for building a science career, but the products were seen by only a few scientists and students interested in the specific topic of my research.

A few years ago, I began noticing that there were lots of videos about scientific topics on YouTube and similar sites created by non-scientists—some good and some not so good.  The second thing I noticed was that many of these videos—even the silly, inaccurate, poorly produced ones—had been viewed by, in some cases, millions of people. By comparison, my journal articles had been read by a handful of people. I also noticed that scientific journals were creating videos and podcasts to supplement written articles and were asking authors to submit their own videos to illustrate their work. I also saw that a few scientists and students were starting science blogs in which they talked informally about a science topic, and some included videos to illustrate the concepts they were blogging about.

USGS

Public domain image (U.S. Geological Survey)

And it occurred to me that things were changing rapidly in science communication, but many scientists were not keeping up with these changes. At the same time, I was being told by the government agency I worked for that in addition to technical publications, I should be providing more science information to non-scientists. My first reaction was that I didn’t have time to do outreach and also meet my scientific goals.  I also didn’t have a clue about making videos or setting up a blog.

But then I realized that by becoming more proficient in science communication, particularly with multimedia tools, that I would be in a position to share my research more broadly, raise my online profile, and keep up with the changes in electronic publishing and reader expectations for media-rich content. I saw that to be competitive in the future, a scientist would need not only new skills in multimedia but a new attitude toward science communication.

In 2008 I decided to explore video as a means of sharing my scientific knowledge with a global audience. I began filming my scientific fieldwork and, after learning the basics of movie-editing, started using that footage to produce videos about my research and that of colleagues. computerscreen_klmckee

After some trial and error, I was able to publish, through my science agency, a series of science videos. I began getting lots of feedback from viewers and saw that my videos were being linked to by various science organizations and individuals.

In 2012, I set up this website (and a video channel) in which I could more easily share my video-making experiences and insights with other scientists and students. To date, I’ve produced eight peer-reviewed science videos and over 75 video tutorials showing how to plan, shoot, and edit a video to deliver a science message, as well as reviews of equipment. In 2013, I published an eBook, The Scientist Videographer, which is an interactive guidebook to videography for scientists. In 2014, I began teaching video-making workshops and webinars for colleagues and students. Through these activities, I hope to encourage other scientists and students to use video to share their knowledge with the world.

—Karen McKee, Ph.D.

Brief Biography:

Karen L. McKee is a Scientist Emeritus (retired) with a U.S. science agency and an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences at Louisiana State University. She received both a master’s degree and doctorate in botany and conducted research in the field of wetland plant ecology for forty years. While working for the U.S. government, she studied the effects of elevated CO2, sea-level rise, and hurricanes on wetlands in the Mississippi River Delta (Louisiana, USA) as well as in other wetlands around the world. Her work has been published in over 100 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters. Dr. McKee also has produced several peer-reviewed videos that describe her research and other topics of general interest such as climate change and large river deltas. She recently authored the book, The Scientist Videographer, which promotes science communication by teaching scientists and students how to use video to tell their science stories. In addition, she is co-founder and trustee of a non-profit organization, The Wetland Foundation, which provides travel grants to students in wetland science to attend conferences and conduct field studies.

For more details, see Other Science Contributions

 

Recent Posts

Bow Shock

Photo by Christian Nielsen at unsplash.com

The film opens with a time-lapse of an astronomical observatory framed against a backdrop of stars rotating slowly overhead in the night sky. We hear foreboding music that suggests the inevitable passage of time. Then we see astronomers at work inside the observatory gathering data from various sensors and arrays aimed at nearby asteroids, distant stars, and far-away galaxies. Throughout the night, the scientists and staff deal with routine problems such as a faulty temperature sensor. Meanwhile, the telescope camera is methodically snapping images of celestial objects.

 The next morning, a young researcher notices an unusual visual pattern in the night’s data—a curved distortion in space that resembles a bow wave generated by a ship moving through the ocean. Such interstellar phenomena are called bow shocks. But this one seems to be different. She takes her discovery to the director of the astronomical institute, who is taping a public service video about their new telescope and state-of-the-art camera, which captures the telescope’s entire field of view and creates a tridimensional cartographic image of the sky. After she finishes recording the voice-over for the video, the director tells the young scientist to put her images from last night’s work on screen. They watch as the computer stitches the images into a time-lapse view of the bow wave moving diagonally across the starscape. The young researcher estimates that it is traveling at about one third the speed of light. More calculations reveal that the bow wave is passing through the Oort Cloud in the outer reaches of our solar system. Whatever it is, it’s right on our doorstep.

Then, the director points out something really astonishing…the bow wave appears to be slowing down.

Although the scenes depicted above are fiction, they were filmed at a very real observatory, newly built for the purpose of wide-field optical surveys of the universe—the Observatorio de Astrofísico de Javalambre located at Sierra de Javalambre in Teruel, Spain. The film, entitled “Bow Shock” is a collaboration between filmmaker Javier Diez and scientists from the Javalambre Physics of the Accelerating Universe Astrophysical Survey (J-PAS). It was screened at the 2016 Imagine Science film festival and later archived at Labocine—a platform for new-wave science films. Watch it here: Bow Shock.

We are all familiar with science fiction films, which often take us to the edges of human imagination: The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner. Alien. But Bow Shock belongs to a new genre called “scientific fiction”, which is a cross-fertilization of science fact and cinema. Emphasis is on getting the technical details right (something Hollywood often fails at) while telling a compelling story (something Hollywood excels at). In this particular film, the observatory and its research goals are real, but the story being told (about the bow wave discovery) is fictional. The idea is to provide an accurate account of the science while telling an intriguing story of how scientists of the future might use this new observatory to spot evidence of extraterrestrial life or other celestial phenomena. It’s an interesting approach that, in my opinion, has a lot of promise.

Bow Shock is a good example of scientific fiction—in this instance with actors playing the parts of scientists and observatory staff. The film is technically sound, well made with eye-popping visuals of astronomical techniques, and tells an intriguing story. Information about the observatory’s unique telescope and camera system is cleverly conveyed in the fictional story by having one of the characters record a public service video summarizing key features of the system. This approach is much more palatable than having a scientist give a dry, awkward speech on camera to introduce the observatory and its equipment. The fictional story about the bow wave does more than capture and hold the viewer’s attention while the more technical aspects are presented. It illustrates how astronomers look for unusual patterns in data collected with telescopes. By featuring the bow wave phenomenon, the film not only shows how astronomical research is conducted, but also how the observatory might make important discoveries in the future.

Of course, the biggest discovery would be to find signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. The film hints at this possibility, and the scientist actors speculate about how First Contact might occur and what response we might expect. This focus on First Contact takes advantage of people’s fascination with the question of whether life exists outside the Earth. There’s also a bit of historical irony in the film when the Spain-based astronomers recall what happened when Spanish conquistadors encountered the people of the New World. The analogy between early (Spanish) explorers sailing the oceans in search of new trade routes and spacefaring aliens sailing across the galaxy suggests to the viewer some potential outcomes based on known historical encounters. In other words, the film gives the viewer a lot to think about, but without resorting to exaggeration of the science.

Using scientific fiction to convey information about science is an interesting idea. Scientists often struggle to talk about their research in a way that is both understandable and appealing to the average person. Scientific fiction might be helpful in this regard, especially to show how a line of research might lead to breakthroughs in the future. By taking this approach, science filmmakers can spark people’s imagination about what discoveries a line of research may reveal. Humans are hard-wired to get their information in the form of a story. And, making such a film could be a lot of fun. Bow Shock was made by professional filmmakers and actors, but such a film could be made by a group of scientists or science students collaborating with film school faculty and students, for example. The scientists would ensure that the technical details were conveyed accurately, and the filmmakers would provide the cinematic expertise and acting talent. Coming up with a fictional story that is scientifically accurate would be challenging, but could be enlightening for the scientists involved. For more examples of scientific fiction films, check out the Labocine series.

Of course, you don’t have to make up a story to create a compelling film about science or scientists. In my next post, I’ll talk about taking a documentary approach to making films about science that resonate with viewers who otherwise have little interest in science.

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