Why every scientist should make a science video

A –Streams of Thought– contribution by Yvonne Smit. 

As a kid imagining a scientist, we always thought of a professor with messy grey hair, weird glasses, handling all sorts of flasks with chemicals in it (including an explosion once in a while). In our mind those chemicals were magic potions to make someone happy or (in case of the Evil Queen from Snow White) to kill somebody. Not exactly what a scientist is or does, right? Other type of scientists we could think of as a kid were the ones that invented stuff like robots, electric wings (that you could tie on your back and would make you fly), etc. The latter idea might be representing reality a tiny bit more, but most of the scientists are not like these nutty professors or dodgy inventors at all. Soon enough, you’d find out that you do not really know what it means to be a scientist, so why become one? What appeals more to the imagination are doctors, lawyers, teachers, and firemen. So my question nowadays is: how do we stimulate children to go into science? Or, formulated in a different way: how do we stimulate parents to motivate their children to go into science? Let us begin by communicating about the things we do as a scientist and create awareness! After all, we are all trying to make the earth a better place to live on. This can be done as a scientist or by anyone who is interested in science and would like to make his or her own contribution to the world. Therefore it is important to show how science is done, what its use is and how cool it can be. However, scientific articles might not be the most appealing way to deliver the message. Perhaps an informal blog or a short science video is more effective?

Creating awareness with a blog or movie

Thus, I started my own informal blog (Doctor Soil Moisture: http://yvonnesmit.tumblr.com/) wherein I address all kind of subjects that have to do with the ‘mysterious scientific world’. For example, I explain how the process of publishing a scientific article works or what it is like to teach a group of first year Bachelor students about Hydrology. But, I also dive deeper into my research subject and try to speak to the imagination of my readers when explaining how a Terrestrial Laser Scanner works. It’s a challenge! That is why I always have a couple of ‘test-readers’: my parents, my brother, my boyfriend and a colleague. If they all could understand the content of my next post without falling asleep, it was good to go.

My research subject is about how coastal dunes grow by aeolian sand transport. Dune erosion by wave action during severe storms has been studied intensively, resulting in well-developed erosion models for use in scientific and applied projects. Nowadays there is growing awareness that similarly advanced knowledge on dune recovery and growth by aeolian processes is needed to predict future dune development. Surface moisture is a major factor limiting aeolian transport on sandy beaches. Therefore I use a Terrestrial Laser Scanner to characterize the spatial and temporal distribution of surface moisture content required studying the effects on aeolian transport. And to predict how surface moisture interferes aeolian sand transport I am currently looking into which processes affect the spatial and temporal surface-moisture variability.  You can imagine that tidal oscillations are steering groundwater fluctuations at the beach and in turn groundwater fluctuations have an effect on surface moisture content. Additionally, meteorological factors like evaporation and precipitation influence surface moisture, and there it is: the hydrological cycle in its full glory.

I could write a lot of posts to explain this to my non-scientific audience. But since my fieldwork adventure was so much fun and it is just so nice to see the beach change every day, I thought it would be more appropriate to make a short scientific movie that explains the goal of my research and the necessity of it. Not everybody is meant to read a blog, but to get somebody’s attention a movie of 3-minutes is more effective since it does not take that much time and concentration.

Criteria for a good science movie

There were a few criteria I had in mind when I started to make my own science movie. For example, it could not last longer than 3-minutes; keep it short and to the point. Second, you want a voice-over and not a text that distracts from the images. Be sure the voice-over is smooth and maybe test it a couple of times with an audience. Third, collect pretty shots! This should not be a difficult task to succeed in Geoscience. And last but not least, pick your music well and be sure it’s perfectly synchronized with the movement of the shots to strengthen your story. You will have everybody’s attention and I can tell you that nowadays that’s an achievement on its own, since everybody is distracted way too fast.
You can find some good examples over here; at least that’s my opinion:

1.    CGP Grey YouTube channel
2.   Gross Science YouTube channel 
3.   Vsauce YouTube channel

EGU Communicate Your Science Video Competition

I submitted my movie to the EGU communicate your science video competition in April 2016. I didn’t mean to attend the competition, but when I heard about it I thought: might as well participate since I already had the material for my movie and the deadline would give me an extra motivation to finish it. Furthermore, I do not know of any other science video competitions and I expected the outreach via the EGU YouTube channel would be larger than my own channel. A jury picked me as one of the top 3 finalists. From that point it was up to the public to vote for the best movie. But to convince people to vote, you need to let them know your movie is out there in the first place. So, I guess this is the moment to thank Google, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr and the fact that I was shameless and spammed all the people I know (not sure how many people unfriended me, but it was worth it). It felt like I was running for President (well, maybe a bit different but you get the point). Universities, companies, good friends, Twitter connections and even FAMOUS Twitter connections shared my movie on their websites or social media pages. As a result, my movie got over 1000 votes and over 6000 views! In combination with the positive reactions, I could not be any happier! I am pleasantly surprised about the outreach my video got and how many people were willing to watch it. Although I didn’t win, I guess part of this competition is also to remind you that the outreach is as equally as important as the movie on its own.

You can find the 3 finalist of the EGU Communicate Your Science Video Competition 2016 over here, with winner “Subtle Whisper Of The Earth” by Beatriz Gaite and myself with “How Do Dunes Grow?” as runner-up (2nd place). Watch the 3 movies and decide which one you like best. I think it’s important to look at the movies as a non-scientist. Try to figure out if you could understand the content of the movies without having an education in Geosciences. Also, did the movie grab your attention and did you watch it until the end? That’s the most important if you ask me.

Try it yourself!

The whole experience gave me more motivation to continue making movies about my research or maybe research of others. It is lots of fun to tell people what you’re doing and they actually understand it. You should try it yourself… As a nice side effect you will understand the point of your own research even better. And who knows… maybe a teenager sees your movie and thinks: ‘I want to be a scientist as well one day!’ Wouldn’t that be great?

This year there will be a new EGU Communicate Your Science Video Competition and I have the honour to be a judge and help decide which videos will end up in the finals. For more information go to: http://blogs.egu.eu/geolog/2016/11/30/egu17-communicate-your-science-video-competition-is-now-open/ and maybe I will see your movie in this year’s competition!

Citation: Smit, Y. (2017), Why every scientist should make a science video, Streams of Thought (Young Hydrologic Society), Published February 2017.

About the author 
Yvonne Smit (@YvonneSmit14) is a PhD candidate at University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. You can follow Yvonne’s blog  if you are interested in her adventures as a PhD student.

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