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Science, in 3 to 5 minutes

  • Focus on science
    Focus on science  William & Mary’s Filmmaker-in-Residence Jes Therkelsen (left) discusses video editing with Conor MacDonnell and Erin Hayes in a production suite in the Swem Media Center.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Students shoot videos to showcase the work of 4 scientists

There are the arts, and then there are the sciences. There is literature, language and film, and then there is calculus, physics and experiments. Jes Therkelsen, filmmaker-in-residence at the College of William and Mary, wants to bring together those two poles of academia, instilling in his students a fusion between the humanities and the natural sciences.

Quad FeatureA grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation brought Therkelsen to William and Mary almost two years ago as a post-doctoral teaching fellow based in the Environmental Science and Policy Program (ENSP). Therkelsen launched a curriculum to provide students with the foundational basics of communicating science to the general public. In the fall of 2011, he teamed up pairs of his students with a scientist and said to them, “communicate.”

“We had concentrated on video and the visual realm. The idea was for the students to start visually explaining complex scientific findings and ideas in a creative way,” says Therkelsen. The students worked to convey the ideas and concepts behind the research of their partner professor by creating a short film.

The researchers become the subjects

Like a RockTherkelsen enlisted four William and Mary professors as subjects: Chuck Bailey, professor and chair of geology; Wouter Deconinck, assistant professor of physics; John Swaddle, professor of biology; and Kristin Wustholtz, assistant professor of chemistry. Each of these scientists came to Therkelsen’s class to speak about their science, research and current projects. From these sessions evolved a larger project in which students prepared short videos to highlight an aspect of a professor’s research activity.

“The professors would try to work with the students to communicate how they might be able to use that information to determine who the audience is—and what is the purpose of actually creating the media,” explains Therkelsen, “The students were able to learn the very important process of asking those questions before we even start on the video.”

The Pollution of NoiseThe students had six to seven weeks to complete their videos, which were to be five to eight minutes in length. One common challenge was to communicate advanced scientific concepts to a lay audience accurately, succinctly—and through the medium of video.

“It’s difficult to show science in the visual realm” Therkelsen says. “For instance, Wouter works with the Standard Model of physics. He works with quarks. So how are we going to show quarks visually?”

This ping-pong ball is the nucleus

The Story of Q-WeakTo show quarks visually, Erin Hayes and her partner Carlos Quintela started with the atom. They placed a ping-pong ball in the center of William & Mary’s football field to represent the nucleus of an atom and to show the relative space between the nucleus and the electron shells, represented by the grandstands of Zable Stadium. The video goes on to explain, mixing voice-over narrative and on-camera interviews with Deconinck, the difference between atomic particles believed to be fundamental (such as electrons) and the protons and neutrons of the nucleus, which has a substructure made of different quarks.

In “Colorful Collaborations,” Molly Bashay and Lily Rubino used an animation they created with a computer program to explain and show how a laser is used to study the chemistry of paint used in historical portraits in the collections of Colonial Williamsburg. Bashay and Rubino go into the studio of Colonial Williamsburg conservator Shelly Svoboda to show how the surface-enhanced raman spectroscopy techniques of William & Mary chemist Kristin Wustholz provide a minimally invasive approach to paint analysis and its importance to the restoration and preservation of art.

One foot in science, another in art

Colorful CollaborationsLike the project depicted in “Colorful Collaborations,” Therkelsen has roots in the world of science as well as the world of art—he holds a bachelor’s degree in geology as well as an M.F.A. in film and media arts. He sees the value of a more permanent presence of the combination of science and the humanities.

“It’s the dialogue that is so crucial,” Therkelsen says. “It’s just phenomenal that a school like William & Mary is able to offer a class like this. I think that’s extremely rare in higher education. William & Mary has a small feel, but we have big research projects where professors are bringing in a lot of grant money to do large projects and bring students to be involved.”

Erin Hayes has embraced the foundation the class provided, and is already taking a more advanced filmmaking class. Therkelsen says he’s glad to see such continuity in his students.

“Teaching these science students to think about communication, and visual communication especially, will help to prepare them for successful science careers, if that’s the direction they choose to pursue,” he said. “And if they choose to travel down other paths, then the skills they learned might prove useful there as well.  Ideation