Lights, cameras, science: Using video to engage broader audiences

Katie Pratt is a science writer and editor with an eye for design, a talent she makes use of as a content developer, communications instructor, and video producer for the Deep Carbon Observatory (deepcarbon.net, @deepcarb on Twitter).

She holds a PhD in Molecular Biology, Cell Biology, and Biochemistry from Brown University and was a 2017 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Community Engagement Fellow.

Katie has organised and participated in field trips around the world, including Costa Rica, Oman, Italy, and the Azores. If you have any questions about the expedition or the film, Katie is happy to be contacted at katie_pratt@uri.edu.


There’s no escaping the fact that having broader impact activities on your CV is a must for any researcher today.

Whether it’s to help you obtain funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), improve your chances of an academic appointment, or get you a job outside of academia altogether, sharing what you do with someone other than your colleagues can help your career.

It’s one of the reasons I find myself writing this post.

After blogging my way through the second half of my PhD, I was hired by the Deep Carbon Observatory’s (DCO) Engagement Team to write stories about their scientists and the work they do. The DCO is an international network of nearly 1000 multi-disciplinary scientists committed to investigating the quantities, movements, forms, and origins of carbon in deep Earth. Founded in 2009, this decade-long program has brought together biologists, physicists, geoscientists, chemists, and many others whose work crosses these disciplinary lines, forging a new, integrative field of deep carbon science.

Five years on, there’s a lot more to my job and, as a professional “jack of all trades”, I found myself in the field last year with a team of talented early career scientists, investigating the biology, petrology, and geochemistry of the Costa Rican volcanic arc.

When we set out on a field expedition to Costa Rica in 2017, called “Biology Meets Subduction,” we really focused on engagement and outreach.

We were lucky. Our funder, the DCO/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, was 100% behind the idea, and our budget included money for a professional video crew to join us in the field.

I also went with the science team to blog and tweet from the field, producing additional short videos along the way (see more on our YouTube channel).

The cherry on the cake? We took a drone with us, which we used to shoot high quality visuals of the stunning scenery while we worked.

“Telling our research story and sharing our scientific journey with non-scientists was a big priority for our team. We thought the best way to reach a large audience was to make a visually stunning short film,” says team leader Dr. Peter Barry of the University of Oxford, UK.

The Biology Meets Subduction field team was large. With around twenty people in the field every day, there were all sorts of logistical challenges to tackle. At all times, safety was a priority. Before sampling in hydrothermal areas, for example, we made sure that only the people who really needed to be at the sampling site descended into the crater. The non-specialists, then, could avoid the pools of scalding hot water beneath the thin, overlying crust.

Local knowledge was also key to the success of the expedition. Many of the springs we sampled are in remote or inaccessible locations. Our local guide, Carlos Ramirez, has spent more than twenty years talking to members of the community to find these sites. Sometimes, it was necessary to hike through the jungle to reach our sites. But we also walked through a wedding reception, a farm, several resorts, and even found a tephra site along the side of the road.

We chose video as our primary medium because it gave us the opportunity to take people into the field with us and show them how we worked. Anyone can see that our team was young, international, and deeply dedicated, and having fun at the same time. With our video, we tell a story of what we were trying to find out and why. It achieves a lot in four minutes!

Making a video like this isn’t something you can snap your fingers and accomplish, however. It took budgeting, planning, and patience. After we got back from Costa Rica, it was four months before we saw a finished product. And, even then, we had to keep it mostly under wraps while we shared it with film festival committees, in an effort to increase the “buzz” surrounding the project, and investigate the potential for creating a full length film. In August 2017, we finally got to premiere the film at the Goldschmidt Geochemistry Conference in Paris. Out of 92 films, our film won 1st place at the film festival, bringing it to the attention of thousands of our scientific peers.

In December, we rolled out the film on YouTube, and have been sharing it extensively online, via the DCO website and our social media accounts.

It’s a great resource for us now. Every time the team puts out a paper related to the expedition, we can share the video and involve everyone in the excitement we had when we hiked into Poas volcano.

The team is heading back to Costa Rica in April and, while we’re not shooting another film, you can follow our progress on Twitter #SubductCR.

This photo was taken by a drone onsite in Costa Rica on sampling day one. From left: Heather Miller, J. Maarten de Moor, Peter Barry, Dan Hummer, Kayla Iocovino, Donato Giovanelli, Angelo Battaglia, Carlos Ramirez, Katie Pratt, Maria Martinez, Karen Lloyd, Kate Fullerton, and Patrick Beaudry. Giulio Bini and Yemerith Alpizar are standing behind the group.

This photo was taken by a drone onsite in Costa Rica on sampling day one. From left: Heather Miller, J. Maarten de Moor, Peter Barry, Dan Hummer, Kayla Iocovino, Donato Giovanelli, Angelo Battaglia, Carlos Ramirez, Katie Pratt, Maria Martinez, Karen Lloyd, Kate Fullerton, and Patrick Beaudry. Giulio Bini and Yemerith Alpizar are standing behind the group.

 

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