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)

Use Video to Promote the Mission of Your Science Society

This week, the Society of Wetland Scientists (SWS) rolled out their new media initiative and YouTube Channel. Their website explains how video can be used by SWS members to share their work and why video can be beneficial to the SWS mission:

Exposure: Video can raise awareness of wetland issues, new research, and society activities.

Communication: Video augments other forms of communication, such as technical articles, but is a more accessible and modern way to share information that appeals to a broad audience.

Education: Video can enhance the public’s understanding of the importance of wetlands, can inspire current and future wetland scientists, and help in recruiting students to the study of wetland science.

The SWS New Media Team is currently soliciting videos from members and non-members with an interest in wetlands. If you are a wetland researcher or student studying wetlands…or just a wetland enthusiast, consider submitting a video (see the video preparation and submission instructions). If you’ve never made a video before, the following tutorial provides some basic guidelines for making a video with a smartphone.

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.

Teaching Better Communication Skills in Science Courses

In the wake of the recent U.S. presidential election, scientists are redoubling efforts to communicate the importance of science to society. Part of such an effort must be to train the next generation of scientists to be more effective communicators than my generation was. For some years now, there has been a growing movement to improve communication of science. Courses and programs focused on teaching scientists and science students to be better communicators have been implemented at a few institutions of higher learning (for example, the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stoney Brook University). Some science societies (AGU is a great example) also are sponsoring keynote talks at conferences on science communication as well as workshops and webinars that teach members about new communication tools and practices.

Progress has been slow, however, and many science students still receive little, if any, training in science communication. At best, undergraduate and graduate students may be given class assignments that provide training in traditional modes of scientific communication—writing a scientific report or giving a conference talk, for example. Although such skills are necessary for someone to succeed in a scientific career, new skills involving modern communication technologies are increasingly required of science professionals. Furthermore, some experts say that scientists wishing to inform the public about the importance of their work must go where the consumers of science information hang out: social media (Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat) and media-sharing platforms (YouTube, Instagram, Vine). To do so will require 21st century communication tools and knowledge of how to use them. Those who acquire such skills early will be at an advantage later in their careers—an ability to communicate with a diverse audience may even make a difference in getting a job. More broadly, a large cohort of trained scientist communicators can help counter anti-science and pseudo-science movements, which threaten the way science and scientists are perceived by policy makers, the media, and the general public.

Of course, not every science professional can or should become a highly visible communicator on the order of Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson. That level of participation and visibility is not what I am talking about. Instead, I’m suggesting that we raise the overall communication skill level of students just enough so that when they must interact with policy makers or the general public as scientists, they can do so more effectively and confidently. One way to encourage and train students to communicate science is to make learning communication skills part of science courses. In addition to the typical course material, students may be given assignments that help them become better communicators. They might create a talk for the general public; an infographic about an important scientific issue; or a video about a species, habitat, or process covered in the class material. The idea would be to introduce students to 21st century communication methods as well as to begin their training in how to effectively engage audiences outside the scientific community.

So, how might this work in a science class?

Recently, I was asked by a colleague, Dr. Tracy Quirk, at Louisiana State University to speak to her class about how to make videos to share science. The course is called “Plants in Coastal Environments”, which covers the distribution and ecology of plants growing in coastal wetlands and adjacent habitats. The course is taught in conjunction with a university-wide program, Communication Across the Curriculum, which endeavors to enhance students’ communication skills in four areas (speaking, writing, visual, and technological). The course must focus on two of these four communication skills and create class assignments that address the requirements for those selected modes. For example, to demonstrate visual skill to communicate discipline-specific information, students might create a video or some other sophisticated visual product. In a communication-intensive course, a portion of the final grade must reflect communication-based work.

One of the class assignments for this particular class was to select a plant species studied in the course and make a video about it. There were about twenty students, who worked in pairs to design and produce a video about coastal plants such as Avicenna germinans (black mangrove), Spartina alterniflora (smooth cordgrass), or Taxodium distichum (bald cypress). Early in the semester, I gave an hour lecture in which I covered some basic information about planning, filming, and editing a video—enough to help the students avoid common filmmaking mistakes and to give them a few ideas for designing their video projects. The students then worked on their video assignments through the following weeks, many filming parts of their video during class field trips to the coast of Louisiana or, for graduate students, during field trips to their research sites.

I again visited the class near the end of the semester when the students presented their completed videos. I was really impressed by the results. The videos were interesting and told intriguing stories, for example, about how a species adapts to the wetland habitat or the relationship of the species to a broader environmental issue such as the BP oil spill. Each video was required to include some data from the literature relevant to the species, and all the student videographers were able to weave that information into their stories. Overall, I could see that they had paid attention to the suggestions I made in my lecture. Most avoided the novice mistakes I often see in first-time videos. Every video was rated by each student, which provided peer feedback on which aspects were good and which could have been done better. What stood out to me was how much more appealing a video was when a student appeared on camera and told a more personal story or impression to introduce their topic. This approach was engaging and quickly grabbed the viewer’s attention. The other thing I saw was that the students came away from the experience with a better appreciation of what it takes to be an effective science communicator. And that, folks, is an important insight for someone who plans to be a science professional.

Below are two of the videos created by students in this class (direct links to videos here and here):

In summary, by emphasizing the use of communication tools such as video in science class assignments, educators can help raise the overall communication skill level of students and better prepare them to compete in the 21st century. As I said above, the goal is not to create an army of Carl Sagan clones, but simply to help future scientists be a bit more engaging and informative in their interactions with the lay public. A little bit of training in communication can go a long way toward improving the overall level of performance when a scientist is called upon to be interviewed by the news media, to testify before Congress, or to give a public lecture about science.

If you are a science educator and are interested in learning more about how to teach better communication skills or if you are a student wanting to acquire those skills, there are many tools and resources available (for example, see the AAAS site or the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science).