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.

About ten 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 100 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:

Dr. 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 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

But I’m Not Artistic!

The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh, public domain

“If you hear a voice within you say, ‘You cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced” – Vincent Van Gogh

That quote by Van Gogh is about our internal censor—the voice that erodes our confidence and prevents us from trying something new or challenging. Whenever I talk to a group of students or colleagues about making videos about their scientific research, someone invariably responds by saying that they aren’t very artistic and thus cannot be very good at videography. So, why even try?

I understand why they might think this way. Many people are reluctant to engage in any activity that presupposes creativity or artistic ability. Musicians and artists are believed to be somehow different—that they possess inherent talents the average person lacks.

However, as children, we all happily and unselfconsciously draw vivid pictures and make up imaginative stories. Then something happens. A teacher or parent says something discouraging, or our peers make fun of us. Or, as we grow older, other activities draw our attention, and that artistic spark fails to evolve.

I was lucky in that I continued to draw and sketch through childhood. I was an aspiring scientist and spent a lot of time drawing plants, insects, and protozoa that I could see with my microscope. I knew that such detailed drawings were important records for a biologist or ecologist to create. Even after digital devices came on the scene, I continued to sketch in my field notebooks and in the personal journals I kept. My ability to capture an image using only pencil and paper matured. Each drawing was better than the last one. I even became good enough to work as a free-lance scientific illustrator for a while.

My point is that any skill, whether artistic or not, improves over time with practice. With videography, your first attempts will likely not be great, perhaps even terrible. But it doesn’t matter because you will improve with each succeeding video you make. This point  is especially relevant for scientists and other professionals who want to use video as a communication tool. We’ll likely never be as good as a trained filmmaker, but we can still produce effective videos.

In fact, the scientist videographer’s goal is not to be a professional filmmaker but is instead to be a more effective science communicator. Scientists must still learn to communicate using traditional means such as writing articles for publication in journals and speaking at conferences. But we must also be able to use other media to communicate, such as video, which is now a popular way for people to get their information.

And by the way, there is no right way or wrong way to make a video. Worrying about making a technical error or being judged from a filmmaking standpoint is paralyzing. I always advise students who suffer from writer’s block to, “Just write and get your ideas down first; go back later and polish.” Most find that once they are freed from the fear of making a technical error or of not writing the perfect sentence, the words begin to flow.

That approach also works for videography. If you find yourself paralyzed with doubts, just start filming—yourself or others conducting field research or working in the laboratory. Film with the thought that you’ll not necessarily use all of the footage in your video. That view will likely free you to capture a variety of footage and give you some much-needed confidence about filming. I think you’ll find that once you’ve got some footage in hand, the creative juices will begin to flow.

So, if you are disappointed in your first attempts at videography (or are hesitant to even try), remember that even the best videographers were once novices. The difference is that they ignored their internal censor, which was gradually silenced as they made each succeeding video.

For more about this topic see: The Stages of Learning Videography (and Other Skills)

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