In the Facebook age, it’s increasingly clear that scientific research and innovation simply can’t be relegated to the informational vacuums or institutional silos of yore. Long before the golden era of all networks social (and even before Alan Alda had a grad program at Stony Brook in communicating science named after him), luminaries including Sagan and Einstein recognized the value of public science communication in promoting democracy and elucidating issues relevant to the perpetuation of life and livelihood. But on a changing planet where new technologies are being churned out daily; where breaking news is flooding Twitter before it hits the earbuds of live reporters; where getting highly-specialized, multimedia content is the norm and not the exception—how are scientists keeping up in science conversations? How are they communicating with a hyper-connected public?

If they are scientists and engineers in NSF-funded IGERT graduate programs across the country—the answer is ‘exceedingly well’, and they are doing it by creating and sharing immersive, science-rich video content via social networking. Furthermore, these young scientific minds are laying the groundwork for future collaborations by mentoring their peers in distilling complex research topics like biologically-inspired robotic engineering; smart textile design; nano-plasmonic engineering for energy efficiency, and more into palatable, 3-minute-or-less visual arpeggios for entry in the annual NSF IGERT Online Video and Poster Competition

The Academic Poster Session, Re-Imagined

This week, May 21st-24th, 2013, the NSF IGERT Online Video and Poster Competition is open for viewing, voting, sharing, and conversing at

This year marks the third year of the NSF-funded competition, created and facilitated by TERC, a non-profit research and development institution in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The NSF IGERT Online Poster Competition originally was launched in 2011 as an online replication of an academic poster session for the IGERT Community. In 2012, the IGERT project team proposed extending the reach and dynamism of the competition by including a video component and a 'Public Choice’ Award (determined by ‘Likes’ on Facebook). This proposal was supported by the National Science Foundation as an effort to further the Foundation’s strategic goal of disseminating innovative scientific research to the public at large.

But in 2012, IGERT presenters needed to create videos about their work that would be accessible to the public—a radically different process from creating academic posters for topical events. It was a process that often framed ‘a-ha’ moments as presenters looked at their own research with different lenses. Instead of going into the kind of highly technical, contextualized detail expected by scholarly peer audiences, presenters had to situate their research in terms of real-world applicability.

Diana Graizbord, a 2012 Awardee studying social policy in developing nations, says, “We present our research all the time, but usually in academic audiences, and more so—in academic audiences really related to the work we’re doing. I go to sociology conferences and present my work to other sociologists. So much is taken for granted. I never have to explain why or what I’m doing. With our video, we had to make very clear that our project was couched in bigger questions that go beyond sociology, that go beyond South Africa, that have broader significance.”

To Video or Not To Video? (To Video…)

Initially, presenters from the 2011 Competition were resistant to the idea of using video to communicate about their work in the 2012 Competition. But after the end of the 2012 Competition—over 90% of presenters reported that video was “helpful in explaining scientific research to a general audience.” Anecdotal evidence suggested that while presenters found video creation to be the most challenging aspect of the competition, they also found it to be the most rewarding. And the rewards of their work were evident. With nearly 4,000 Public Choice votes cast via Facebook during the 2012 Competition and video views nearly triple that of posters among members of the public—presenters’ videos were filling a very necessary gap in science conversation. Says Margery Hines, a 2012 Awardee and electrical engineer developing an automated landmine detection and localization robot, “a lot of my friends and family are not technical people, and for once—because of my video—they understood part of what I do.”

While the inclusion of video and the ‘Public Choice’ Award markedly improved public involvement in the IGERT Competition, presenters were surprised by video’s reach across oceans, institutions, and even the desks of Human Resources managers. Says Kristy Jost, a 2012 Awardee investigating smart textile engineering, “I was amazed that we had people liking our video from Australia, from China, from Europe, Eastern Europe, from Africa, and all across the United States.” Jost was one of several Awardees who received job offers from industry employers after the 2012 Competition. Additionally, many of the 2012 Awardees had opportunities to connect with big names in their respective fields, and network with colleagues, peers, and leaders across fields of study and institutions. Most of these connections were initiated by comments, questions, or accolades posted on presenters’ video walls.

Communicating Science Lessons…from the Experts

Competition Awardees from years past have become mentors to 2013 and future IGERT presenters through hosting webinars and helping produce a 9-video series containing their best video-making and social networking practices. Their practitioner videos accurately portray the triumphs of succeeding at learning a new skill as well as situate the challenges to be overcome along the way—whether those challenges come in the form of script writing; film editing; or outreach via social networks. Much like the video and ‘Public Choice’ components, peer mentorship and support have been tightly woven into the NSF IGERT Competition fabric. Far from merely providing past Awardees opportunities for networking with future colleagues—Awardees now believe video is inextricable to their roles in communicating science. 2012 Awardee and Biologist Matthew Coopersays it best:

“The biggest advice I can give is to not look at this as a one time deal—a one time contest where you’re competing for a one-time prize for one particular project. We live in a world that is increasingly visual, we get our content online predominantly, and video is becoming the way we communicate to each other. As scientists, if you can encapsulate your project and results into a 3 minute video that’s accessible to a broader community, funding agencies, and people that need to see your results—that’s a tool that will take you a long way in your career.”