Finding a good science story


Hav­ing decided to enroll in Duke’s cer­tifi­cate pro­gram in doc­u­men­tary arts, I was des­per­ate to find the per­fect story for a sci­ence doc­u­men­tary. I needed a project that was com­pelling and provoca­tive, yet acces­si­ble, timely, relat­able, visual, and most impor­tantly, pro­vided an oppor­tu­nity to cap­ture great char­ac­ters with an unfold­ing nar­ra­tive. My PhD research into the genetic basis of human brain evo­lu­tion was just too tech­ni­cal in nature, incre­men­tal, and imper­sonal. But maybe that’s just four years of doc­toral research talking.

I knew that I wanted to use nar­ra­tive sto­ry­telling and dig­i­tal media to explore cur­rent research in evo­lu­tion­ary biol­ogy. I didn’t want to pro­duce the next expo­si­tion on Darwin’s jour­ney or explain gen­eral evo­lu­tion­ary processes of adap­ta­tion. There was wikipedia after all. I wanted to explore how evo­lu­tion­ary think­ing could reveal new aspects of the human condition.

I strug­gled to find a story that was sexy and com­pelling, an edgy yet relat­able story that illu­mi­nated the evo­lu­tion­ary processes at work all around us. My friends, fam­ily, and ran­dom strangers were besieged with an end­less stream of project ideas. I vet­ted sto­ries con­stantly, obses­sively. It was hard to focus on my other respon­si­bil­i­ties- I did have a PhD to fin­ish. Every issue of Sci­ence or Nature, every NYTimes sci­ence piece, every con­ver­sa­tion with a research asso­ciate pro­voked an explo­sion of new ideas. It was dizzy­ing to make sense of it all. I was con­fronted with the obvi­ous, what did make a com­pelling sci­ence story?

For­tune even­tu­ally met up with per­sis­tence. Unbe­knownst to me, the stage was being set for my first foray into rep­re­sent­ing sci­ence through doc­u­men­tary work. A group of sci­en­tist, cul­tural and evo­lu­tion­ary anthro­pol­o­gist to be exact,  were con­ven­ing at the National Evo­lu­tion­ary Syn­the­sis Cen­ter (NES­Cent) in sev­eral months for a spe­cial work group. Coin­ci­den­tally, NES­Cent was located blocks from my home in down­town Durham (very lit­eral) . These anthro­pol­o­gists were inter­ested under­stand­ing one of the most sig­nif­i­cant behav­ioral shifts to occur in human his­tory: the demo­graphic transition.

For decades sci­en­tists have rec­og­nized that human pop­u­la­tions, across cul­tures and con­ti­nents, have been tran­si­tion­ing from his­tor­i­cally large fam­i­lies, say 8 chil­dren per mother, to sig­nif­i­cantly smaller fam­i­lies, about 2 chil­dren per mother. The con­se­quences of this seem­ingly benign shift are dra­matic for the envi­ron­ment and our com­mu­nity social struc­ture writ large. But why this is hap­pen­ing, despite eco­nomic devel­op­ment, improve­ments in health and edu­ca­tion proved to be an evo­lu­tion­ary odd­ity, coun­ter­in­tu­itive to naïve evo­lu­tion­ary think­ing. The work­ing group of sci­en­tists at NES­Cent had assem­bled a diverse team of experts that would meet sev­eral times over the next year. The sci­en­tists were charged with for­mu­lat­ing an new evo­lu­tion­ary frame­work. Future expe­di­tions to field sites across the globe where being planned. New exper­i­men­tal stud­ies were being started. The stage was set for a major advance in under­stand­ing human behav­ior to be doc­u­mented using dig­i­tal storytelling.

A world and people in transition

The demo­graphic tran­si­tion: an inter­ac­tive doc­u­men­tary project   Few peo­ple are aware that the world is under­go­ing a cul­tural trans­for­ma­tion with the power to resolve intractable human dilem­mas and cre­ative unimag­in­able new ones. World pop­u­la­tion growth, often rep­re­sented as an apoc­a­lyp­tic inevitabil­ity, is slow­ing sig­nif­i­cantly. It fact, pop­u­la­tion growth is slow­ing so rapidly that current …


Storytelling — bring on the data

Unem­ploy­ment Explained

When I think of sci­ence doc­u­men­tary films, and I may be out­casted for such a hereti­cal state­ment, I mostly think of painfully bor­ing attempts at pro­ject­ing sci­ence at an unsus­pect­ing audi­ence. I have heard folks refer to PBS pro­gram­ming as P-robably B-oring S-tuff made for broad­cast. Com­bin­ing sci­ence and enter­tain­ment, or data and sto­ry­telling, just seems like a bad idea — right?

Maybe sci­ence, and infor­ma­tion more broadly, can be used in such a way that is both engag­ing, enter­tain­ing and rel­e­vant. There is no bet­ter time to explore this pos­si­bil­ity than the present. Amaz­ing tools are being built that enable sto­ry­tellers, and doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ers, to enrich their con­tent with sci­ence. This is espe­cially true for data that is con­stantly chang­ing — think eco­nomic indicators.

The pio­neer­ing folks of Pop­corn Maker at the Mozilla Foun­da­tion and Susan McGre­gory of Data Docs are invent­ing ways to make docs that are built to live on the web. These new trans­me­dia projects inte­grate video and real­time data in an HMTL5 envi­ron­ment that uti­lizes data from gov­ern­ment APIs. Check out their project on the met­rics of unem­ploy­ment. Oh, and the ‘data’ pre­sented in the film, such as the cur­rent unem­ploy­ment rate, is not just some sta­tic graph­i­cal ele­ment, but actual cur­rent unem­ploy­ment stats — very cool.


Harnessing HTML5 For Storytelling

SOON I will start to roll out plans for my next big project that will be com­pletely web native — my first inter­ac­tive (i) doc. The pos­si­bil­i­ties are end­less when it comes to  doc­u­men­taries made for the web — inter­ac­tive, timely, engag­ing, name your adjec­tive. The affor­dances (as Janet Mur­ray would say) are espe­cially excit­ing for projects that aim to blend sto­ry­telling with infor­ma­tion dense top­ics — sci­ence. So it’s excit­ing to see inno­v­a­tive folks at places like the Mozilla Foun­da­tion and Sto­ryGami blaz­ing the trail for the HTML5 video nar­ra­tive world.

Har­ness­ing HTML5 For Sto­ry­telling | sto­rygami.

Filmmaking workshop — SwS style


Hav­ing just returned from a week­long sci­ence doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ing work­shop, let me be clear — film­mak­ing is hard work. Some of the most gru­el­ing, yet reward­ing, sat­is­fy­ing, soul-fulfilling work I have done in recent mem­ory. Orga­nized by the stu­dent run group Sci­en­tists with Sto­ries — me and about a dozen other folks co-produced five short doc­u­men­taries on coastal com­mu­ni­ties in the Outer Banks, NC and their rela­tion­ship with the environment.


Our work will be fea­tured as a web series on the Mon­i­tor National Marine Sanc­tu­ary web­site in early Spring 2014. That said, in less than a 6 days time, we shot, edited, and rough cut our docs for a com­mu­nity show­ing on the final day of the work­shop. Did I men­tioned that we shot, edited, and pre­sented our work in 6 days? Just checking.


Led by sci­en­tist film­maker Neil Losin of Day’s Edge Pro­duc­tions, we all learned the art and sci­ence of mak­ing com­pelling doc­u­men­tary films. As a sci­en­tist, I often feel dis­tanced — both emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally — from my research sub­jects.  Prob­a­bly for good rea­son. But shoot­ing doc­u­men­tary films forces you by neces­sity to con­nect and engage with your sub­jects. It’s your respon­si­bil­ity to rep­re­sent indi­vid­u­als, even entire com­mu­ni­ties, both fairly and hon­estly. You must lis­ten, under­stand, and respond in order to gar­ner their respect and can­did per­spec­tives — the foun­da­tional ele­ments for doc­u­ment­ing life.


We were warmly wel­comed by the fish­er­man (and fish­er­women) that call the Outer Banks home for gen­er­a­tions. Hour long inter­views were often fol­lowed by gra­cious invi­ta­tions from our sub­jects to join them on the next day’s fish­ing expe­di­tion, or fam­ily potluck. It was truly an honor to be wel­comed into the homes of peo­ple who define the word community.


After long days of prepar­ing for inter­views, scout­ing loca­tions, col­lect­ing B roll, clam rack­ing (yes, that’s right), boat rides, and fish­er­men tall-tales, I increas­ingly felt refreshed and renewed with a sense of con­nec­tion. I started to ask myself — where is my com­mu­nity — I think the answer was stand­ing all around me.


Docs: new forms, new tools

The doc­u­men­tary tra­di­tion, much like the sci­en­tific tra­di­tion, is an evolv­ing medium of human explo­ration. Inno­va­tions in web tech­nol­ogy and sta­tis­ti­cal com­put­ing are chang­ing the way that peo­ple inter­act and under­stand the actions of oth­ers, and them­selves. Doc­u­men­tar­i­ans have taken note and are forg­ing col­lab­o­ra­tions with tech­nol­o­gists and sci­en­tists to push the bound­aries of artis­tic expres­sion. The doc­u­men­tary form — visual, audi­tory, and writ­ten — is begin­ning to inter­act and engage with the peo­ple for­mally known as the audi­ence, often in unex­pected ways. While the inter­ac­tive (i)-doc is in its infancy, and will likely expe­ri­ence much fail­ure, the oppor­tu­nity for new meth­ods of expres­sion will thrill both artists and sci­en­tists. When I asked Tim Hors­burgh of Kartemquin Films about the future of i-docs, he quipped “we must fall forward.”

Here is a short clip intro­duc­ing the inter­ac­tive doc­u­men­tary. I also present how meth­ods bor­rowed from the social sci­ences are enabling doc­u­men­tar­i­ans to assess the impact of their projects. Doc­u­men­tar­i­ans can now ask, in a sys­tem­atic way — which audi­ences did my film reach? How did they feel about the film? What did they say about the film to their social net­works? Did my project pro­voke fur­ther dis­cus­sion? As many have said before, it’s an excit­ing time to be alive.

Global Documentary Trends

Doc­u­men­tary projects are an impor­tant mech­a­nism for rais­ing aware­ness, and when at it’s best, moti­vat­ing change. Google Trends is an amaz­ing resource to visu­al­ize trends around key­words, whereby pro­vid­ing a global mea­sure of inter­est around a par­tic­u­lar topic. What about doc­u­men­taries? Are they more preva­lent in the national con­scious­ness of cer­tain coun­tries or regions? We …


Scientists make contact with the people

The People’s Sci­ence is a new exper­i­ment in open­ing the lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion between sci­en­tists and reg­u­lar folk. Sci­en­tists can post a layman’s expla­na­tion of what they’re work­ing on and peo­ple can respond with ques­tions of their own. Projects like this can help shrink the chasm between sci­ence and the peo­ple who need and want …


Ralph Haygood Interview ~ Evolutionary geneticist

A physi­cist turned evo­lu­tion­ary thinker, Ralph Hay­good shares his pas­sion for the math­e­mat­i­cal won­der of biol­ogy in this Hack My Sci­ence inter­view. Unlike most aca­d­e­mic researchers, Ralph has stepped out­side the ivory tower to pur­sue his sci­en­tific inter­ests with­out the inter­rup­tion of depart­men­tal meet­ings, grant dead­lines, and aca­d­e­mic pol­i­tics. Ralph’s thoughts on his career and …