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:

Use Humor (and Facts) to Counter Pseudoscience

I’m often asked by my colleagues why science professionals should use video to share their work. My response is that video is one of the most effective and popular ways to share information today. If you want to share your science, you need to adopt modern means. Video has become the most crowd-pleasing way to reach an audience, especially a global audience. So much so, that science skeptics and people pushing pseudoscience theories have enthusiastically adopted the medium of video to spread their beliefs. And, some of them have gotten really good at it. To effectively counter videos that promote, for example, the idea that the earth is flat, that vaccines cause autism, or that NASA faked the moon landing, there must be equally compelling videos that debunk these blatantly false ideas (I’m not providing links because I don’t want to promote any of these fake science sites; you can find multiple videos supporting such theories on YouTube….or you can just take my word for it).

I should hasten to add that not everyone is cut out to be a debunker of pseudoscience, and I’m not recommending that the average scientist attempt it. However, there are science organizations, science professionals, and knowledgeable laypeople who try to set the record straight. Some use just the facts. Some use humor. Some use the original research published in the scientific literature. All use video to deliver their death blows to the purveyors of fake science.

Below are three examples that take one of these approaches.

Making the Invisible, Visible

Being an ecologist, I have little difficulty creating videos with footage of plants and animals and the ecosystems they inhabit. In contrast, scientists in fields such as mathematics, physics, or chemistry often have some difficulty creating effective visuals to illustrate their work. However, a few scientists and videographers are succeeding at making the invisible, visible. For example, a group of Chinese scientists, using microscopes and high-speed cameras, set out to create videos that show the beauty of chemical reactions. The following video is one of their latest productions.

You can see more videos from this group here:

Make A Video About Your Field Site

The average person, having never met a scientist, has only a vague notion of what scientists do and where they work. Many people, when they hear the term “scientific research”, envision a lab-coated person comfortably seated at a lab bench, pipette in hand. In fact, many scientists spend weeks or even months at remote field stations or temporary field camps in deserts, rainforests, savannas, and ice fields. Conditions at such field sites vary, but many are often challenging in terms of creature comforts such as working toilets, air-conditioning or heating, potable water, hot food, and window screens to keep out disease-carrying insects.

In addition to the typical research challenges such as how to design a rigorous sampling schedule or what statistical program to use, a field project adds a whole new list of hurdles for the researcher. And the more remote and rustic the setting, the greater the challenges. What do you do when your clumsy student drops the spare batteries to the GPS in the ocean, and the nearest store is a day’s boat ride away? Do you have an evacuation plan in the event your colleague puts a dive knife through their hand trying to open a coconut? Are you prepared for a water shortage, limiting you to six cups daily for baths? What do you do upon arrival at the field station to find that the outhouse was blown away by a hurricane? This aspect of the research world is not often talked about and is certainly not discussed in the resultant journal article, except perhaps as a brief statement about the field site location on a remote island in the Caribbean or the use of a dogsled to reach sampling locations in the Arctic.

Field work also can take you to incredibly beautiful and untrammeled environments where you wake up every morning to the sights and sounds of nature in a wondrous terra incognita: the sun rising over the ocean, a night heron patiently poised on a mangrove prop root, an osprey’s hectoring call in the distance, the wind flowing through the window of your thatched-roofed cottage, the rustling of coconut palm leaves, a local fisherman expertly casting a net, a swirling school of fish chased by a barracuda, and a parade of hermit crabs marching across the white sand. The field researcher not only experiences nature firsthand, but she often meets and learns to work with people of different cultures and languages (their common language, of course, is science). There are also opportunities to try a new cuisine: fry jacks, fish head soup, red beans and rice flavored with pig’s tails (yum), conch stew, baked plantains, johnnycakes, fish empanadas, banana fritters, and flour tortillas.

Such insights (about both good and bad experiences) are interesting to the lay audience and can serve to attract students and/or prepare them for research in a particular field.

Scientists are increasingly using video to inform the public about what they do and why they love their work. Do you conduct field research in a unique, remote, challenging, or beautiful setting? At a famous field station? If so, making a brief video about your experiences is a great way to educate students and budding scientists about life in the field. Such videos can also help to bolster the image of scientists in the minds of the general public by showing some of the many challenges that researchers must overcome to succeed.

In the videos embedded below, a long-time research associate at Penn State University, Don Voight, talks about what it’s like to work at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. They are brief (a minute or less) and are illustrated with images from the field. Making such videos is not difficult and can even be accomplished without video footage (see How to Make a Video without Film Footage).

Bow Shock

Photo by Christian Nielsen at

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.