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.

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:

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).

Help, I Want to Make a Video But My Topic Is Not Very Visual!

I recently received an email from a reader who was having difficulty figuring out how to make a video about his non-visual topic. He wanted to communicate his research on data technology but was at a loss as to how to depict this topic using video. I gave him some suggestions specific to his situation, but realized that there were likely others out there like him. So, I decided to make a tutorial that shows three ways to generate film footage about a non-visual topic. Here it is: