Video As A Scientific Research Tool

Video has been used to record scientific phenomena for decades. Such recordings may simply serve to document an important event such as a volcanic eruption or give a glimpse of a rare animal, even one that no longer exists. For example, thanks to audio-visual records, we can watch footage of now extinct animals such as the Ivory Billed Woodpecker (1935) and the Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger (1933). Wildlife recordings were not only made by scientists, but by naturalists, resource managers, and professional photographers. Over time, researchers expanded the use of video to record experimental subjects—especially in fields such as animal behavior and child development—in an attempt to capture ephemeral behavior and transform it into more objective, quantitative information.

In a few cases, researchers have used video to create the experimental material presented to study subjects. For example, a study of wild marmosets used film footage of laboratory-trained monkeys performing tasks (opening a lid or a drawer) to see if the wild animals could learn by watching a video.The researchers made an “instructional video” with the laboratory footage of trained marmosets and set up a monitor in the field to display the video to wild marmosets. Then they tested the wild marmosets to see if they adopted any of the techniques shown in the video. You can watch the video here to see what happened.

The Heider-Simmel animation is another example of how video might be used in research. I’ve written before (Bully Triangles and Terrified Circles) about the fascinating animation video used by psychologists Heider and Simmel in their research on people’s propensity to anthropomorphize everything they see, including inanimate objects. The researchers showed the video to participants and assessed their reactions to it. If you’ve not seen this animation, I’ve embedded it below. It’s almost impossible not to make up a story about (or assign intent to) the geometric objects in the film clip.

Prior to digital cameras, personal computers, and editing software, however, film-based research required expensive equipment and technical skills to capture and process footage useful for research purposes. Consequently, video was not a common research tool, particularly in my field of ecology. How things have changed! The use of video in scientific research to record physical, chemical, and biological phenomena has exploded in recent years, and researchers in many disciplines are discovering video. Scientists now have access to affordable digital cameras that can be used to conduct research in various environments, such as underwater to measure fish populations or inside a colony of leafcutter ants.

Despite the recent uptick in use of video to conduct research, there are not a lot of technical guidelines or how-to manuals. Most scientists are working out the filming, editing, and analytical details themselves. For example, a student, Austin Taylor (Bodega Marine Laboratory Spring Class, 2012), studied the effect of wave action on the behavior of the intertidal black turban snails, which he filmed with a GoPro Hero 2 camera attached to a DIY tripod designed withstand waves. In addition to figuring out how to process the video to extract data on snail movement, he and his coauthors had to design and fabricate a unique camera mount to withstand the force of waves striking their intertidal field site.

You can read his technical paper, “Underwater video reveals decreased activity of rocky intertidal snails during high tides and cooler days”, published in Marine Ecology, to see details of camera setup and post-processing of the footage to quantify snail movements. Below is an example of the film he captured during the research:

As more researchers become aware of the possibilities of video, we’ll likely see more researchers experimenting with how video can be used to attain new research insights.

Yanny vs. Laurel

By now you should have heard about the audio clip in which a spoken word is perceived as “Yanny” or “Laurel” depending on the listener (I hear “Laurel”). Here is a brief video by AsapSCIENCE that concisely explains this auditory illusion and reveals which of the two words was actually recorded.

It’s a good example of how video can be used to explain the science behind a fascinating phenomenon. The creators used an electronic white board to create their video (see this post for a how-to tutorial).

Put a Human Face on Science by Filming Your Research

In my latest series of posts, I’ve been focusing on why scientists and other science professionals should be using video to share their experiences and to explain why their work matters to society. One reason is to combat the false information about science topics (the Earth is flat, NASA faked the moon landing, vaccines cause autism, etc.) and the anti-science movement, which questions the need for research and the motives of scientists. Such groups are technically savvy and understand the power of video to spread their message.

Now I’m not suggesting that you take on these anti-science folks.

Instead, you can make a video highlighting why your research is important and at the same time show your enthusiasm and dedication to finding solutions to problems. In other words, put a human face on the science. Videos featuring women and minorities are particularly needed to help inspire a more diverse scientific community. The following video accomplishes that objective by interviewing a South African scientist talking not only about what she researches but what attracted her to science in the first place.

Another video showing a large team of scientists on an expedition to collect deep ocean cores counters the outdated idea of the lone scientist working in an isolated laboratory. The video features scientists from different countries working together, day and night, to accomplish their research goals. In addition, the video shows the great care the scientists take in collecting, storing, and analyzing their core samples. Such videos give a more accurate picture of how and where scientists work and the diverse makeup of scientific teams.

Preparing for a Life on Mars and Filming the Experience

An increasing number of scientists and science organizations are using video to show how science is conducted and why scientific research is important to society. Such videos are particularly effective when they not only show what scientists do, but show who scientists are and what motivates them. The video I’ve embedded below explains how a NASA-funded project is studying the effects of isolation on a group of people—in preparation for establishing a colony on Mars.

To make such a video interesting to viewers, the videographer needs to use a variety of perspectives. In the following tutorial, I describe 20 basic camera shots that filmmakers use and that you can easily replicate, even with a smartphone.

My Natural Laboratory: What (Field) Scientists Really Do

Google the sentence “What do scientists really do?” and you’ll likely get a lot of links to pages describing people working in antiseptic laboratories on molecular biology of the cell, chemistry of iron, optical physics, or human diseases. For those of us who are ecologists, geologists, oceanographers, archeologists, limnologists, or behavioral biologists, however, the image of a lab-coated scientist hunched over a lab bench under bright fluorescent lights does not fit. Yet the latter is most often the image conjured in the public’s mind when they are asked about the work of scientists. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing inherently negative or unexciting about laboratory work. I’ve spent many hours in the lab happily running analyses of plant, soil, and water samples. Some of my most thrilling moments in scientific research happened in a laboratory watching the output of an instrument that revealed an important finding.

My point is that the public’s image of scientists and where we work is skewed toward the laboratory as the primary or only location where science is performed. Always portraying scientists sequestered in a sterile laboratory paints an inaccurate picture of where science is done and what kinds of challenges different types of scientists face. The average person on the street might be surprised to hear that there are thousands of scientists whose laboratory is a mangrove forest, a glacier, a barrier island, a river, a volcano, an alpine meadow, a sea grass bed, or a coral reef. Or that scientists spend weeks or months away from home conducting research in the Caribbean, the North Sea, the Pantanal, the Okavango, or the Antarctic. Students who have no interest in being a laboratory scientist might be attracted by the prospect of field research to discover how overfishing impacts lobster populations in the Caribbean, how salt marsh plants are affected by an oil spill, what causes sand dunes to form, or what damage hurricanes do to coral reefs. Unfortunately, most laypeople are unaware of the mind-boggling variety of settings in which scientific research is carried out.

The scientist videographer can change the public’s perception of scientists and where we work by making short videos of the different habitats, animals, and plants that they study. For example, this recent video shows scientists studying the impacts of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on coral reefs in the Caribbean. It not only depicts information about important natural disturbances of coral reefs, the video sends the clear message that the scientists studying the effects of hurricanes carry out (at least part of) their work, not in the traditional laboratory, but in the field. Such work requires additional skills, such as scuba, and time away from home. But the scientists also get to work in a beautiful, living laboratory.

If you conduct research in a “natural laboratory”, make a video about it and explain what you like most about working there. Then share it via social media. #MyNaturalLaboratory

Below is a video tutorial showing how to film underwater with a GoPro: