Think science is boring? Washington University’s Ultra-Condensed Science series employs animation to bring research to life.
Where do science and storytelling converge? It only takes about 30 seconds into an installment of the Ultra-Condensed Science (UCS) series to find out. Consisting of a few short videos, the inaugural season of this series features young WashU researchers speaking about their work accompanied by animations that illustrate scientific concepts. This project, the brainchild of Diana Lutz and Tom Malkowicz from WashU Public Affairs, has the goal of crafting science communications that tell a story and better engage the public. From colorblindness to imploding stars to inertia and gravity, the series covers a wide variety of topics even in the first few episodes.
For Lutz, senior news director and science writer, UCS is just another step on her life mission to make the natural sciences accessible to a wider audience. She was raised in a family of scientists and was a pre-med student in college, but decided to pursue English literature in both her undergraduate and graduate degrees. In fusing these interests, she would soon become an editor for an engineering magazine, and has since worked as a science writer for multiple publications, including Scientific American.
After years of interviewing scientists, Lutz says she has rarely seen the humor, character, and patience of these researchers come through in science publications. So, when videographer Tom Malkowicz joined Public Affairs three years ago, the two teamed up to create a new platform for scientists to show off both their research and their personalities. Malkowicz, who was particularly enthusiastic about formulating a whole series, brought his passion for media production to the table.
While Malkowicz is not trained in the sciences, he credits his early interest in production to Carl Sagan, Bill Nye, and David Attenborough—all of whom are scientists he watched on TV while growing up. He saw an opportunity to tell the story of science, and has brought this impetus to his work at WashU.
“There should be a fundamental relationship between storytelling and science,” he says. “But maybe it’s currently a broken relationship where, on one hand it’s really important to share what scientists are doing, but it’s also really important that the general public can understand it.”
Armed with dedicated producers and a strong mission to bridge the gap between science and the public, UCS was able to get support from Public Affairs, under the leadership of Jill Friedman. Lutz and Malkowicz then approached potential animators. After perusing through science animations on Vimeo, they decided on studios in Toronto and Sweden. The animations have come to play a critical role in bringing the scientist’s stories to life, using images such as fist-bumping monkeys or Einstein on the moon to simultaneously engage the audience and illustrate the research.
The next step was to gather the scientists themselves. Fortunately, soon after choosing the animation studios, WashU hosted FameLab, a science communications competition sponsored by National Geographic in which researchers present their studies in a brief but entertaining fashion. UCS would not only find some potential scientists though FameLab, but would also adopt the format of short and engaging presentations of scientific research. The final product would be three-minute videos featuring the researchers as they narrate animations that showcase their studies.
Not surprisingly, paring down months or years of scientific research into three minutes is quite the test. Cole Pruitt, a graduate student in nuclear chemistry whose work is featured in the current season, speaks to this challenge:
“Editing [the presentation] is the most difficult component. To make a clear and interesting talk, you have to edit mercilessly, throw away topics you like, and create a story from your experience. As hard as it is to learn new things, I think it’s even harder to un-know what you know (or think you know) about a topic to present it in a publicly accessible way. During practice of a presentation, you have to push yourself mercilessly—what jargon am I using that people don’t understand? Is what I’m saying interesting? Is it fundamentally correct?”
In her work, Lutz has long realized this difficulty, but hopes UCS can serve as the middle ground. “There’s always been this tension. The scientists want it to be accurate, and the people on the receiving end want to be entertained. In science communications you feel like Stretch Armstrong. But the purpose of UCS is to change the attitude towards science, and not necessarily educate everyone on the details behind the science.”
Malkowicz echoes this approach. “Rightfully so, they want to show off what they’ve done,” he says. “But this is hard to do this when not everyone can follow. I think how we can help is to show how science is relevant in the real world how it’s useful—and we can use UCS to do that.”
Both Lutz and Malkowicz believe the Ultra-Condensed series will continue in an interdisciplinary trajectory. Lutz would like to incorporate the commercial design team at Sam Fox for future animations, and also hopes to include the Music Department in making scores for the short videos. Tom envisions the project taking off into other areas of science.
With the real-world issues the world faces, such as climate change, those involved in the project believe that an understanding of the importance of scientific research will be critical going forward. Michael Abercrombie, a graduate student in physics who is also featured in this season, emphasizes this point:
“A basic understanding of how things work is essential in making informed decisions about an innumerable range of topics, some of which might have far-reaching effects. Beyond this, the spoils of the work of generations of scientists are ubiquitous in modern society. Everyday things such as electricity, computers, and GPS are products of fundamental research scientists began with no idea of the future applications of their work. It’s worth keeping this in mind when considering the importance of scientific research being carried out today.”
To view all the Ultra-Condensed Science videos, please visit the UCS website by clicking here.