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ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Mindy Weisberger

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Every year I ask some of the attendees of the ScienceOnline conferences to tell me (and my readers) more about themselves, their careers, current projects and their views on the use of the Web in science, science education or science communication. So now we continue with the participants of ScienceOnline2012. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today my guest is Mindy Weisberger (Twitter).

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your background? Any scientific education?

Hello, and thanks for having me here! To be perfectly honest, I still feel like a bit of an oddball in the science community, even though I’ve been producing science videos for over a decade. Before that, I had no science foundation whatsoever; unless you count a long-standing obsession with science fiction. Science filmmaking was something I fell into unexpectedly, but I enjoyed it so much that I decided to stay awhile.

I went to film school in New York City and started out shooting super-8 films and directing and editing punk rock music videos for local bands (which I sometimes still do). For years, my production experience was all over the map. I shot musicians and performance artists, directed documentaries and experimental short films, edited everything from celebrity wedding videos to pro wrestling promos, and had a brief stint writing and producing fashion news. Eventually I found my way to the American Museum of Natural History as a media writer and producer; first in the Exhibitions department and then for Science Bulletins, a video production division covering the latest developments in astrophysics, Earth science, biodiversity, and human biology and evolution. AMNH is where I discovered that science could be just as dynamic, ‘in-your-face’, exciting, and messy as a punk rock show—the transition was more natural than I expected.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

Whatever the media project, I’m always trying to tell a story—as much with images as with words. Working on so many different types of films and videos turned out to be a great foundation for meeting the varied goals of museum exhibit media, because it left me comfortable working with different story formats and visual techniques. Most of the exhibit videos I produced had a linear story to tell or science to explain: the final days of doomed South Pole explorers, traditional silk-making still in practice today, diversity in bats, research into the biomechanics of T. rex, or the future of space exploration. Meeting with and interviewing the scientists was always the highlight of every production; taking their innate enthusiasm and finding the best way to communicate it to viewers, whether the scientists appeared on-camera or not. But I’ve found that when they did appear in the videos, viewers responded very positively. Putting a human face to scientific research is an incredibly effective method for helping museum visitors to forge a connection to the science—no matter what the story is about.

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

Since late 2011 I’ve been with Science Bulletins, part of AMNH’s National Center for Science Literacy, Education, and Technology. I write and produce the News—short, monthly videos that display at museums (including AMNH), science centers, and on the Web, highlighting current scientific research. One month’s-worth of production could cover diversity in our early ancestors, the discovery of a new galaxy cluster, and the mating habits of urban coyotes. Running time for these videos is under two minutes, so language and images have to be as spare and efficient as possible—a great exercise for any writer or filmmaker. The visual needs can change from story to story, depending on what works best to get the science across. A video about brown widow spiders in southern California was edited almost entirely with photos, while one about Twitter tracking a cholera epidemic combined photos with animated maps and motion graphics, and a story about Sally Ride Science’s MoonKAM project included video. Though sometimes the biggest challenge is just making the story selects for the month when there is so much incredible research going on.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

As a kid I used to spend hours at the library immersed in the card catalog—remember those? Sometimes I had a destination in mind and sometimes I didn’t, and would happily open drawers randomly and flip through the entries until I stumbled across something interesting. The Internet is like that. It can lead you to exactly what you’re looking for, but its greater value is that it can put you in touch with things you never suspected you were looking for. For me, the biggest payoff from using the Web for science-related research is the way that a single starting point can link me to writers, images, papers, and videos that I probably never would have known about in the first place, let alone been able to track down. Blogs, Twitter and other social networks work that way too (sometimes with the added bonus of actual conversation with the writers.) They guide you across the threshold, but—I’ll paraphrase from “The Matrix”—it’s up to the reader to find out how deep the rabbit hole goes.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2012 for you? Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?

Are people usually this happy to be at a conference? It was my first, so I didn’t have anything to compare it to. But happy people are more approachable, which certainly helped me jump in. I’m glad that my first session was Perrin Ireland’s excellent Science Scribe 2.0—I ended up sketching my notes for every event that followed. Turns out that doodling with intent meant that I remembered more of what I heard, and helped me connect ideas from session to session. I could go on and on about how awesome everyone was in general (because they really, really were), but I hope to tell them face-to-face this year, now that I’m somewhat over the ‘new kid’ butterflies.

And was it inspiring? More than I ever expected, as projects and collaborations started cropping up in the months after. The dust from ScienceOnline12 had barely settled when Kevin Zelnio penned his I Am Science post, triggering a flood of personal recollections from other scientists on Twitter. I edited a sampling of tweets into a short video (which he ended up using as part of the project’s Kickstarter.) When The Story Collider launched an evening of I Am Science stories, I worked with Ben Lillie and Erin Barker to produce a video for the show. Some of us at Science Bulletins will be leading a session for the first Science Online Teen conference on science storytelling using video and animation. I’m also thrilled to be co-moderating sessions for ScienceOnline2013 with Rose Eveleth (Animating Science), and Psi Wavefunction (Summing it Up: The Data on the Cutting Room Floor.) Being a part of any community means more than having resources you can draw upon—it means you become one of those resources yourself. And this particular oddball hopes to continue doing both—at ScienceOnline2013 and beyond.

Thank you! See you in January!






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