How to Film Your Science and Overturn Stereotypes about Scientists

In a previous post, I talked about how the public’s view of science and scientists is skewed toward the laboratory as a primary location where science takes place. I pointed out that for many scientists, their laboratory is a rainforest in Central America, a desert in the US Southwest, the bottom of the Pacific ocean, or a cave in Canada. Yet the layperson’s image is most often of a white-coated scientist working in a sterile laboratory (google “draw a scientist” and see what images you find).

To raise awareness by the public (especially prospective science students), more field scientists need to film where they do their research and post them on media-sharing sites. The video embedded below (Spelunking in Search of Antibiotics) is a good example. It is only two minutes long and required only a brief break during their field trip to film. Yet the message it sends is that scientists work in fascinating places and are often intrepid explorers seeking answers in the most remote corners of our planet.

Such a video is incredibly easy to film and edit with a smartphone. The following tutorial provides a few, basic tips (using an iPhone, but the tips are relevant for all smartphones):

Use Video to Share Your Dissertation Research

Increasing numbers of scientists and graduate students are posting videos that show various aspects of their research—in the laboratory and the field. Such videos serve many purposes, both for the researcher and for society. Take a look at this example and then we’ll talk about the benefits of making such a video.

Videos that depict scientists and students doing their research can have multiple benefits—both for the individual researcher, as well as for society.

1. Raise visibility. Early career scientists struggle to make a name for themselves in their chosen field. The traditional approach is to publish in journals and to present at science conferences. Those forms of formal communication of science are still important, but now there are additional tools that scientists can use to share their work: social media, science blogs, and videos. The video example above highlights the dissertation research of a Ph.D. student at Charles Darwin University, Mike Miloshis, who is studying how sea-level rise is changing the wetlands along the Mary River. Well-done videos like this can be used by the student or by the student’s department or university to more easily share their work with prospective employers or funders, policy-makers, the media, and the general public.

Only a handful of people will likely read your dissertation, but many more will be willing to watch a video showing what you did, how you did it, and why it’s important.

2. Solicit funding. Video is an excellent way to explain your research to prospective funders—particularly people without a science background. Crowd-funding platforms are springing up that require investigators to submit their research proposal in the form of a brief video. Members of the scientific community and the general public watch the videos and pledge a donation or vote for those projects they wish to support. One example is Thinkable, which just awarded $5,000 (AUD) to an Australian cancer researcher and is about to award almost $15,000 (AUD) in another competition based on submitted 3-minute videos.

Those students and established scientists with video skills are at a clear advantage in such competitions.

3. Augment a CV or resume´. Video is an effective and efficient way to share information about a researcher’s unique interests, skills, and accomplishments. A video can paint a picture that is more distinctive and memorable than a written description in a resume´ or on a website. In a few short minutes, the video above showed this researcher’s general knowledge of his topic and ability to communicate it, as well as his expertise with various types of scientific equipment. Because it’s visual, video makes that information more memorable. It’s especially effective at getting across intangible qualities such as enthusiasm, confidence, energy, creativity, eloquence, and humor.

See this post for more information about making a video resume´.

4. Recruit students. A video can not only solidify a distinctive image for a researcher, it can serve as a great recruiting tool for an academic looking to attract students or post-docs. The video above depicts what it’s like to do river research and explains why the topic is important to study without getting too bogged down in scientific details. In a broader sense, such videos can show other students what graduate research is like in a particular field and what some of the challenges are.

By encouraging students to make videos about their experiences, schools can attract prospective students and help them anticipate what they will face in graduate school.

5. Inform the public. In addition to benefits for the individual researcher, videos can simultaneously inform the public about the importance of a research topic and the nature of scientific research. The average person is curious about science but may view it as a mysterious process conducted behind closed doors by socially awkward, introverted, cold, mad, obsessive, [insert your stereotype] people. Many envision a lab-coated, old guy toiling away in a laboratory.

Videos like the above example show that research is carried out in all kinds of environments and by perfectly normal people. In other words, videos can help put a human face on science.

How do you create a video to portray your dissertation research? You have a couple of options: join forces with a videographer or do it yourself. The video example I’ve highlighted in this post was a joint production between the graduate student and a videographer friend. If you are studying at a university, try approaching someone with multimedia skills.

If that doesn’t work out, you can make the video by yourself or perhaps with the help of a fellow student or your advisor. Making videos is now quite easy with mobile devices that shoot HD video and simple-to-use yet powerful movie editing software. A smartphone is truly all you need these days to create a professional and effective video to share your unique qualities with others.

Why Scientists Are Using Video to Communicate: Reason # 10

We see an apple-red helicopter taking off from a rocky outcrop and hear a voice saying, “The area we study is so remote. It’s kind of like working on the moon might be.”

That’s the leader of a research team from Northwestern University talking about a research expedition to study climate change in Greenland.

We then hear from a graduate student, who says, “I consider myself very fortunate to be able to spend a month and a half in the high Arctic at seventy degrees north.”

That is how a video called “Extreme Science in the Arctic” begins. It goes on to show the research team extracting sediment cores from the bottom of an Arctic lake and to explain the scientific and other challenges they face in collecting data in this inimical landscape. This video does a great job of showcasing the research of the Principal Investigator, Yarrow Axford, and emphasizes the incredible field experience her students receive.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts and on my About page, there are many good reasons for a scientist to take the time to produce videos. One of the most important reasons is to promote one’s research program to funding agencies, potential collaborators, and future students. A video can readily convey your expertise in a field of study, involvement in multi-disciplinary projects, or opportunities for students who work with you.

Videos can be especially effective in showing prospective graduate students what your research is all about, as well as something about you and what it might be like to work with you. A video featuring you and your current students conducting research on the Great Barrier Reef, searching for an endangered species in Central America, or investigating wetland loss in the Mississippi River Delta is a great advertisement. As a lab-based scientist, you may be exploring new ways to treat cancer or the genetics of mental illness. Even if you are not doing research on the hot topic of the day, you can still create a video that is appealing and that might interest a student who is undecided about a topic or a graduate adviser.

In planning your video, decide on a goal. Are you mainly interested in attracting top students to your program? If so, such a video should clearly show what students are going to be wanting to know about your program: Is this research program interesting? What does this research involve: field work or lab work or both? Is the professor a good adviser? Will I enjoy working with this research team? Will I gain unique experience in a topic that interests me?

Or you may want to create a video that summarizes the broader impacts of your research. Such a video may be used to meet the expectations of funding agencies (NSF, NIH), which  ask principal investigators to show how their work affects society, e.g., via education or outreach.

A video can also serve to show potential collaborators where their research interests overlap with yours. Scientists rarely read papers in other fields. An interesting video, however, might attract viewers curious about your topic and spark an idea for a joint project.

Near the end of the “Extreme Science in the Arctic” video, a scene shows melt water flowing in a cascade off a multi-layered ice cliff. The narrator says, “This work will be used by scientists around the world who are urgently trying to predict how the Earth’s ice sheets will respond to a warming climate.”

Nicely done.