With 100 episodes released, Science Nation has become the longest running and most widely distributed video series produced by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Since June 2009, the weekly shows have profiled NSF-funded research at more than 70 universities and institutions in 26 states and the District of Columbia.
Though the stories average about two and a half minutes, it takes more than a week to produce each one--and that doesn't include the time needed to research and select the stories and set up the interviews. Story selection can be tough. "The NSF funds so much research, it's like a candy shop because there are so many interesting stories to choose from," says Science Nation executive producer Kate Tobin. "The ideal story is one that is accessible to the general viewing public, that they feel is relevant to them, and it needs to be visually engaging, and, ideally, something that the researcher can show us or demonstrate for us."
Often, a Science Nation story will also feature people who are impacted directly by the research being profiled. One of the first Science Nation episodes, "Eyesight to the Blind," introduced viewers to a woman who had been completely blind but is able to make out light and shadows for the first time in decades thanks to an artificial retina. That was the most memorable show for Science Nation editor Roger Mahr.
"Tears were coming down as she was describing the first time she looked up at the sky at night and could actually see a flash of light where the moon was. She knows it's early on in the research, but she's excited about what could happen and one day, she’s hoping she can see," says Mahr. "That was a very touching story to work on, and we were getting choked up watching the interview."
The most surprising story for Mahr is "Ulcer Answers," because he thought that ulcers are caused by stress. They are actually caused by bacteria called H-pylori. The producer for that story was Jon Baime, who incorporated vintage film clips from the 1950s to help tell his story. "I was able to show what science thought in 1959 and compare that with the science of 2009," says Baime. "Using the film, which had some humor in it, brought the science down to earth in a way that people can really understand it."
For producer Marsha Walton, the most surprising Science Nation stories have been those involving interdisciplinary research. "Years ago, if you were a physicist, you dealt with physicists, and a chemist dealt with chemists. I recently did a story that involved a partnership between a mechanical engineer and a linguist coming up with a robotic language. How brilliant is that?" asks Walton.
One of producer Ann Kellan's favorite episodes, "Batty for Bats," is about a biologist and an engineer who teamed up to study bats in flight. "The video of the bats is amazing and (for) the researchers — one from biology and one from engineering — it was very difficult. They had to create their own language to communicate."
The fact that Science Nation is only two and a half minutes long presents a challenge from the moment the producers begin their interviews. "When you're interviewing someone, to get them to say it just right so that somebody who knows absolutely nothing about the research can learn something and understand it, and then to write it so concisely — that's the challenge," says Baime.
The Science Nation producers spend many weeks of the year on the road. Baime recently traveled to New England to cover research stories about why salt marshes are declining and what happens to the environment when we remove dams. Marsha Walton's upcoming stories include geologists who study the rocks under the ice in Antarctica and an educator who's documenting endangered languages. Ann Kellan will give us an up close view of the flying aces of the insect world and tells us about a new system to track firefighters inside burning buildings.
These are just a few of the stories Science Nation will be presenting in the months ahead.
This story was originally written for Science Nation and was republished with permission here. Video: Harrison Miller/Science Nation Producer.