Female Scientist Stereotypes in Film: Introduction

Many people get their impressions of scientists and what scientists do from the movies. Film can depict the realities of careers in science and technology while telling a story about the characters who happen to be scientists. Film is also important in developing and perpetuating society’s myths about scientists. We are all familiar with the cliché of the mad (typically male) scientist in fictional film. But what about female scientists? In a new video series, I explore six stereotypes of female scientists seen in the cinema.

All of these videos will be posted to my YouTube channel in the coming weeks. As you’ll see, I did not use clips from the original movies, but instead created the videos using images in the public domain (or otherwise free to use). I took this approach for several reasons: to avoid any copyright infringement claims, to challenge myself to create videos using only still images and voiceovers, and to aid the viewer in envisioning these stereotypes beyond the specific movie examples I offered and to spot them in other movies.

This first video in the series introduces the topic and briefly describes the six stereotypes and examples of each from the movies:

If you wish to learn how to create a video using still images (montage), here is a tutorial showing how in the movie-editing app, iMovie:

Book Giveaway

Just a quick post to remind readers that the Instafreebie book giveaway (20 Environmental Authors) I mentioned in the previous post is still going on. It will end on June 15, 2017. If you haven’t gotten my book yet, this is your chance to get a free copy of The Scientist Videographer. Although it’s not as interactive (or attractive) as the version I published in the iTunes Store (and made with iBooks Author), the Instafreebie text version contains hyperlinks to video tutorials and other online information.

A few reviewer comments:

“Very practical, the story building tips helped me tremendously.”

“This book is great! I had absolutely no experience with video when I stumbled onto Karen McKee’s website, video tutorials, and this book. I learned everything I need to know to start making videos, and videos that I am proud to show others.”

“This book is laced with demo videos to help you understand and apply what you are learning. Most important to me was the step by step help in editing, both enhancing the science story and the technical skills needed to work with common editing software.”

“The Scientist Videographer is cutting edge, practical, and relevant–there’s much to learn.”

“The Scientist Videographer is an inspiration and deserves a spot with the best science communicators of our time.”

If you’ve enjoyed any of my free video tutorials or blog posts about making science videos, please consider contributing to this effort by purchasing my book ($14.99) or recommending it to a colleague, student, or friend.

  • If you don’t own an Apple device, you can purchase the text-only version of my book at Amazon Kindle or Smashwords.
  • You can get the fully interactive version of The Scientist Videographer to read on your Apple device in the iTunes Store. It’s readable on a Mac, iPad, or iPhone. Here is a preview of what this version offers to readers.

Barriers to Science Communication and How to Overcome Them

I embarked on an effort to help colleagues and students use video as a communication tool on May 21, 2012, just over five years ago. During that time, I’ve learned a lot, especially about what can deter science professionals from trying a new means of communicating their science.

One of the most frequent comments I have gotten from colleagues is that they don’t really see the need for them to spend time 1) learning non-traditional ways to communicate (social media, blogs, videos) or 2) engaging the public. While such comments did not surprise me (I had once thought the same thing), I recognized the potential consequences of this attitude. Among other things, I understood that scientists needed to be familiar to and trusted by the general public, but that our traditional behaviors were sometimes interpreted to be arrogant, uncaring, or self-serving.

In my early talks on science communication, I often included a prophetic quote from a British report on science communication: “In modern democratic conditions, science, like any other player in the public arena ignores public attitudes and values at its peril” (Anon. Science and Society Report, House of Lords, 2000). As we’ve all seen in recent months, the scientific community in the U.S. has received a rude wake-up call to the fact that the science enterprise is under attack and that one reason is the failure on the part of science practitioners to effectively communicate why science is important to society. As a consequence, some science professionals are rethinking their past practice of staying sequestered in their ivory towers and avoiding contact with the people who fund their research (i.e., taxpayers). The most dramatic manifestation of this shift was the March for Science, held in Washington, D.C. April 22, 2017 and in various other locations around the world.

Granted, there are lots of pitfalls in putting yourself and your science on public display, especially without the training to do it properly. But I think we’re seeing that staying disengaged from the public is perhaps even more dangerous. We are in a critical transition period—from a time when only a select few scientists communicated with the public to a situation in which anyone with a cell phone and an Internet connection can reach millions of viewers with their science message. At the same time, antiscience groups are on the rise and taking advantage of advances in communication technology. My impression is that those who are attacking science and “facts” are far more skilled at crafting and delivering their messages than those of us in science. And they appear to be far better organized and dedicated to communicating their message than we are. This dichotomy should be disturbing to all science professionals.

Those of us in science are still learning how (and whether) to make use of new means of communication; not surprisingly, there can be mistakes and failures during this learning phase. However, with proper training and preparation, the next generation of science professionals will be better positioned to navigate this new communication landscape. Better training, combined with a new impetus for scientists to engage in non-traditional means of communicating their science, will help to overcome the barriers described above.

When I started this blog, there was some help for scientists interested in learning new communication approaches, but not a lot focused on teaching science professionals how to use video to share their work. In this blog and on my YouTube channel, I’ve aimed my tips and tutorials at the working science professional who doesn’t have the resources to hire a media specialist or the technical skills and training to make their own videos (as opposed to professional science communicators who have formal training in crafting science messages and in the use of audiovisual media to convey those messages). My goal has been to help others avoid mistakes and waste time in preparing science videos.

In celebration of my blog’s anniversary (and reward for reading to the end of this post), I’ve made my book, The Scientist Videographer (text version) available for free at InstaFreebie. It’s part of a 20-author giveaway–check it out!

Basic Steps to Making a Science Video with a Smartphone

One of the biggest barriers for scientists to use video as a communication tool is the perception that video making is time consuming, expensive, and technically challenging. I know that this idea is out there not only because of comments from colleagues, but because this was my impression before I got involved in making videos. What I eventually learned was that advances in communication technology have made it possible for anyone to make a video—with inexpensive equipment and a minimum of time and effort. We now have (1) devices and software that make it ridiculously easy to create an effective and powerful video message and (2) the Internet where we can instantly share our knowledge globally.

To address this particular barrier, I’ve created a new tutorial that is designed to show the science professional just how easy it is now to create a video to share science. My goal with this brief tutorial was to demystify the video-making process for colleagues and students unfamiliar with it and to show how easy it is to plan, film, and edit a video with a smartphone (iPhone). I’ve emphasized the use of smartphones in this particular tutorial because: (1) most people already have one and know how to use it, (2) they have excellent cameras that can produce high definition video, (3) there are excellent movie-editing apps for mobile devices, (4) both the camera and editing software can be readily mastered with minimal training and effort, (5) their Internet accessibility facilitates sharing the video with others, and (6) filming, editing, and sharing a video is accomplished with a single device. Although other types of recording devices and more sophisticated editing software are available, they require somewhat more time and effort to master.

Here’s that tutorial (click here for a direct link):

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.