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Psi-Chi-ology Lab
To Be (or Not to Be)
A YouTube Science Star

Eureka Foong
March 6, 2017

Emily Graslie has one of the best jobs in the world. Aside from her job title—Chief Curiosity Correspondent at the Field Museum of Natural History—she stars in her own series of YouTube videos that brings science to the masses. In 2011, after graduating with a degree in art, she volunteered at a zoological museum in Montana. There, she took photos and blogged about the specimens she was observing.

Her work soon caught the eye of Hank Green, of the VlogBrothers videos. With Hank, she created BrainScoop, a series of short videos that bring the viewer into the world of scientists. She even has a fascinatingly gruesome video of herself gutting a wolf to prepare it for storage into a museum collection. These videos strike the perfect balance of being both entertaining and informative. In just a few short minutes viewers learn all kinds of amazing things about the natural world. These videos have attracted viewers in the millions and have created new interest in the scientific work that goes on at the museum.

Emily Grasile hard at work dissecting a wolf. Image used with permission.

As a PhD student at Northwestern University, I often wonder if my own research will ever reach the community in the same way. I study the ways that technology can help web designers create better online experiences. But writing academic papers isn’t necessarily the best way to communicate what I’ve learned to actual designers. And if I’m not passing on what I know to the people who will benefit most from my research, then much of the power of science is lost. This is something that all psychologists and psychology students should keep in mind. It is important for us to start conversations with nonpsychologists about our research and how it can make their lives better. Psychology has a lot to offer, and to make that clear, we need to become better at communicating in a nonacademic way so that more people will “get it.”

Video is one way to accomplish this. It is a powerful and popular medium. Many social networking sites are now implementing features that push video to the forefront of peer-to-peer communication. Video is only going to get more popular, so being a fluent video communicator is a skill we should all develop. Emily Graslie is part of a new breed of science communicators for the YouTube Generation and sets a good example for the rest of us.

Besides being an important skill, creating videos can be lots of fun! Videos are visual stories where you are the director. You set the agenda: what should people know more about? Once that’s set, your creative task is to educate and persuade viewers that this is something worth knowing and remembering. You can experiment with different ways of communicating key psychological concepts—set up a dramatic documentary about scientists or do a lighthearted animation. Using video as a medium offers you virtually endless possibilities and the ability to reach people who might not want or be able to read more technical academic articles.

Research on eyewitness testimony has revealed just how unreliable human memory can be. As an undergrad, I created a short video to introduce the “Misinformation Effect” to other psychology students. The video won the top prize in the Noba Psychology Student Video Award. Image used with permission.

Although video production can be both fun and creative, it can also be challenging (in a good way!). I know this from experience. A couple of years ago when I took part in Noba Psychology’s Student Video Award competition, I spent quite a few hours after my psychology class preparing how I would present an important memory concept called “The Misinformation Effect.” Like writing papers, making a video requires a clear plan or, more precisely, a storyboard. As a director, you need to think about who your audience will be and what they already know. Is it enough to talk about a research finding, or do you need to describe a more basic concept to your audience first?

I think Emily Graslie does a great job staying on the level of her audience. In one of her videos, for example, she uses jars of candy to explain the meaning of a “scientific taxonomy.” It’s a wonderfully simple way to explain what might otherwise be a dry and complicated concept. And you can be sure Emily thought it all through, just like I did, on a storyboard first. The storyboard helps you walk step by step through your presentation visually. It can unlock your creativity and helps you see where there might be holes that you need to fill so your audience won’t get lost.

More than anything, I want to encourage you to give video-making a try. There’s no guarantee you’ll become a YouTube star, but if you’re serious about psychology, you’ll certainly benefit from developing your skills as a science communicator. If you’re interested in trying your hand at making a video, why not take part in this year’s Noba Student Video Award competition? You might find a hidden talent in science communication just like I did!

References/Links (The Taxonomy of Candy)


Copyright 2017 by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology








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