Filmmaker-in-residence is bridging science and the humanities

  • Scouting filming locationsJes Therkelsen (left) and ENSP Director John Swaddle

    Photo by Stephen Salpukas

    Scouting filming locations

Jes Therkelsen has a B.A. in geology and an M.F.A. in documentary filmmaking, a combination that makes him ideal for an unusual position.

Therkelsen is William & Mary’s new filmmaker-in-residence. It’s a post-doctoral teaching position based in the Environmental Science and Policy Program (ENSP). He’s the latest in a series of post-docs brought to ENSP and the College through a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. John Swaddle, professor of biology and ENSP director, says Therkelsen’s role as a teacher-scientist-filmmaker will serve as a bridge between science and the humanities.

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“We scientists have not had a good track record of effectively communicating our work to the general public or to decision makers, at all levels of government,” Swaddle said. “Jes is teaching classes that cross the boundaries between environmental science issues and effective communication through film and video. Our undergraduates will receive unique training that will equip them to lead the next generation of environmental decision-making. They’ll not only have scientific expertise, but they will also be stellar communicators and be aware that active and attractive dissemination of ideas is just as important as the research that generated those ideas to begin with.”

Last fall, Therkelsen team-taught Film 306, Video Production, with Sharon Zuber, assistant professor of English. “It is a production workshop, the class where students get hands-on experience holding cameras, working with lights, working with sound equipment,” he said. “I think, more importantly, this is a class that is based on visual storytelling and learning how to elicit emotion from their viewers.”

He arrived on campus in late August, and immediately was in demand as a guest lecturer/collaborator. By the end of September, Therkelsen had compiled a long list of invitations. For instance, Maryse Fauvel in modern languages and literatures has asked him to lecture on ecology and environment in her French Films class. He’s already completed a collaboration with Greg Bowers in the music department in which Bowers’ composition students wrote musical scores to accompany videos created by Therkelsen’s film students. 

In addition to teaching, Therkelsen is initiating a number of video projects of his own, working with both students and faculty. Research, he says, offers a wide range of material for a videographer: “I think the best science only goes so far as it is communicated. There also is a lot of drama and tension that goes on within these research projects that you might not necessarily know about.”

Therkelsen is working to identify and prioritize the most suitable and potentially fruitful projects and collaborations. He’s covering completely fresh ground, because he says his new position here at William & Mary is quite singular and possibly even unique.

“I don’t think there is any other school that has a position like this. A filmmaker-in-residence is pretty rare, even in a liberal arts school,” he said. “To have one based in a science department shows a very progressive attitude on the part of both William & Mary and the Mellon Foundation.”