Model organism researchers face shared challenges in communicating the value of their work. How do you get policymakers to fund research on a microscopic organism they’ve never heard of? How do you explain to the public why scientists spend time understanding yeast and frogs and flies?
In 2015, the ciliate research community decided to invest in a shared tool they could all use to help convey the importance of research on their model system. The result, a 6-minute “Why Ciliates?” video screened at The Allied Genetics Conference in 2016, helped introduce these fascinating organisms to participants from all the other communities attending the meeting. Inspired by the project, and the “Small Fly, Big Impact” Drosophila videos, many attendees expressed the desire to try a similar approach for their own model system.
‘Why Ciliates?’ stars the one-celled wonders whose mini size belies their mega importance in basic research and drug development. Meet the passionate scientists, including Nobel laureate Carol Greider, as they advocate continued funding of basic research as the necessary precursor to the translational breakthroughs that will cure disease.
In advance of the Ciliate Molecular Biology Conference this July 17–22, 2018 in Washington, DC, we talked to the makers of “Why Ciliates?” to learn more about making a model organism video and how to overcome the challenges of a big communication project of this type.
Ted Clark is Professor of Parasitology and Immunology at Cornell University
Jeff Kapler is Professor and Chair of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Medicine and Professor of Biochemistry & Biophysics at Texas A&M University
(Both Clark and Kapler are members of the Steering Committee of the Tetrahymena Genome Project)
What was the inspiration for the video?
Ted Clark: I had worked with Diana to make “Expedition: Science”, a video for a laboratory course called ASSET we’ve developed to teach basic biology to high school students. After I showed the video at the “Ciliates in the Classroom” workshop at the Ciliate Molecular Biology Conference, some of the folks in the Tetrahymena community asked if we could do a similar video to pitch ciliates as model organisms to the broader scientific community and beyond.
Jeff Kapler: I’m on the Tetrahymena Board, and around this time we felt the funding environment was becoming increasingly difficult for those using model systems. We wanted a way to get the word out about the value of ciliates that could be shown to Members of Congress, NSF directors, NIH directors, the public. Something that could be used on our webpages, in grants, in the introduction to talks, at outreach events and so on. Ted and Diana had done a great job with the education video, so we were able to get the community really excited about it.
How did you fund the project?
Jeff Kapler: We developed the initial concept, and then we just asked for support via the ciliate e-mail listserv. People really got behind it. We got donations anywhere from $10 to $2000 coming from all over the world—old retirees came out of the woodwork to support it and even grad students making a pittance of a salary. It was like a GoFundMe without the overhead! We raised about $5000 that way, and the remaining $20,000 or so were provided by the Tetrahymena Stock Center.
What aspects of the video were most successful?
Ted Clark: Diana and I share a similar warped sense of humor—we knew we could rely on humor to make it more approachable in contrast to the more dry, informational tone of some science videos.
We’ve found that people respond to it naturally, it’s very engaging. Part of that was we had to find the right people. Diana asked for interviewees who are passionate and can tell a good story, so I chose people who I knew would make it exciting.
We also received a lot of comments on the representation of women in the video.
Diana Ritter: That was not an accident! Something that really struck me and engaged me when my kid was in kindergarten about 15 years ago, was that when the kids were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, all the boys said things like fireman and astronaut and doctor, and to a person all the girls said ‘I want to be a mommy’. Now I love being a mommy, but that put fuel on my fire to show more women and girls doing science.
Jeff Kapler: The other thing that stood out when I saw the video was the young people in it—it wasn’t just a bunch of old men.
How do you prepare for production?
Diana Ritter: You have to start by identifying what you want to accomplish, your message, and your audience. That helps you think about the style; do you want it to be rapid-fire and provocative? Or attention-getting with a more laid back, conversational, or news report approach?
You need to keep your budget in mind when you are planning, because this will guide lots of decisions about resources. If you have a very limited budget you will need to be as efficient as possible. You might be able to use some existing footage and graphics for example, and consolidate all the interviews at an event, use local crews etc.
People often think you need a script in advance, and will ask people to memorize lines. That’s tough to pull off. My approach is to reverse engineer the script. We know the messages we want, so I come up with interview questions that elicit that content in people’s responses. It can make the editing trickier, but we feel it results in a more natural and conversational end product.
Diana, how did you incorporate feedback from the scientists in the finished product?
Diana Ritter: I worked closely with Ted. After the interviews, we sent notes on our selects to Ted along with a rough edit. He reviewed the scientific information and made suggestions, then we would make changes and continue the conversation through several more edits. It was a good give and take, because he knows the science while we know the pacing and style.
How long did the project take?
Diana Ritter: After the budget was finalized, there were maybe two weeks of scheduling people, assembling a crew, securing locations and agreeing on a general outline of what we hoped to get. We had a three-day shoot. Reviewing the material took several days, the back and forth of fact checking and rough cuts took a couple of weeks. And then another week to arrive at a final edit. So about a month to six weeks.
What were the biggest challenges?
Diana Ritter: One of the big uncertainties was getting the right lineup to adequately represent the ciliate community. We wanted to include some heavy-hitters and Nobelists who always have very busy schedules. We were lucky to be able to shoot around a conference in Washington, DC, where we knew we could get three of the interviews and then stop in Maryland to talk to Carol Greider and Sean Taverna on the way back, and then do another day in Boston.
From a creative standpoint, the challenges were like any communication project: how do you take the vast amount of material and find the order and flow—while keeping your audience engaged? The project was really a pleasure—all the people we spoke to were very happy to participate and share with us their time and enthusiasm!