From Field to Film: Making Science Accessible

We all care about our research. We think our projects are cool, our data is important, and the answers to our questions will save the world. We know the lingo, speak the language, and understand the background. We are immersed in our topic 24/7, 365 days a year, for what feels like forever. So when asked why other people should care about my research, and to explain it in only 60 seconds, I really had to stop and think. Because why WOULDN’T everyone care?!

As grad students we don’t often have the chance to step back and look at our research from a new perspective. We forget that everyone hasn’t seen what we have, doesn’t understand and know what we do. How do we explain the problem we hope to fix, what our solutions will be and why people should care about something they’ve never heard of?

This was one of the greatest challenges for me in the GRADflix process. My research focuses on one very specific process in huge, remote landscapes that most people have never heard of. I had a lot to explain, and still needed to find a way to make people care.

Screen captures from M. Schmidt's GRADflix video showing tree destruction and planting.

Screen captures from Megan Schmidt's winning GRADflix video, #GenerationRestoration: Peatlands and greenhouse gases. Watch Megan's video on YouTube.

The key to science communication is making your science relatable – you have to give the audience a picture, idea, or cause that they can relate to their own lives. For me, that meant taking three GIANT steps back to find what that common thread would be for my research. I wrote the first draft of my script, then sat down and crossed out every single science word that I could. Some were replaced with simpler words; others were just cut. Several renditions later, after forcing every non-science person I knew to read it, I had my one-minute script. I never ended up even mentioning what I do every day in the field and lab, but that’s ok. People don’t need to know every detail; I just needed to make what I do and study feel tangible and real. I wanted to spark care and curiosity in the audience. I needed to make the science and the people behind it real.

When you’re explaining broad concepts, presentation is just as important as the words. In my specific situation, I couldn’t fly out to my site in the middle of winter to film something (plus I HATE being in front of the camera!), and my computer skills peak at putting together a PowerPoint presentation. So, the weekend before my GRADflix video was due I took on the task of creating a hand-drawn stop motion video. I can’t draw but, you know what, that made it kind of cute, and it helped to further simplify the concepts I was presenting. I ended up making it to the final competition where I placed 4th and took home the people’s choice award, so something worked!

2020 GRADflix winners and judgesI’ve presented both posters and talks at conferences before but participating in GRADflix was a completely different experience. Not only do you come away from the experience with a great way to share your research, but it also forces you to take time to think of your research in the broader context and in simpler terms, which gives you a fresh perspective and a renewed sense of excitement for what you do.

10/10 would recommend.

Megan Schmidt is a Geography master's student with Maria Strack’s Wetland Soils and Greenhouse Gas Exchange lab. Her current research focuses on restoration of peatland seismic lines in Alberta, specifically on recreating ground features to facilitate tree growth and reset carbon cycling and storage. Megan won fourth place and People's Choice in the 2019-2020 GRADflix competition with her video, #GenerationRestoration: Peatlands and greenhouse gases.

Photo: Megan Schmit (centre) poses with the 2019-2020 GRADflix competition winners, judges, and supporting staff members.

Are you interested in participating in GRADflix? Learn more about GRADflix, and register to participate in the 2020-2021 competition!

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