Communicating Entomology Through Video: Q&A With Adrian Smith

“Escape From the Jaws of Death!” was the winner of the 2015 ESA YouTube Your Entomology Contest. Co-creator Adrian Smith, Ph.D., says one of his primary goals in communicating science through video is to get insect scientists on screen talking about their research and why they do it.

YouTube processes enough searches every year to rank as the second-largest search engine on the internet, a sign (if it weren’t obvious already) of video’s undeniable potential for reaching a mass audience online. For entomologists, video represents an opportunity to bridge the gap between academic research and public awareness of insect science.

To that end, since 2009, ESA has hosted an annual “YouTube Your Entomology” video contest, and it has drawn videos from a broad range of entomologists on a wide variety of topics. One of those past contestants—and a co-creator of winning videos in 2014 and 2015—is Adrian Smith, Ph.D., head of the Evolutionary Biology & Behavior Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ Nature Research Center and a research assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at North Carolina State University.

You might remember Smith’s name from his guest post here on Entomology Today just a few weeks ago about research he and colleagues conducted on the larval stages of three ant species; that post included a video Smith created in which he talked to a few teenagers about his ant research to get their reactions. That video added to his “Explained by the Author” series, just part of a larger body of science video work Smith has generated in the past few years.

Smith kindly responded to a few questions from Entomology Today about his experience making videos about entomology, and the following Q&A is the first in a three-part series of interviews with entomologists experienced in video creation. Check back here the next two Thursdays for parts two and three.

Adrian Smith, Ph.D.

Adrian Smith, Ph.D.

Entomology Today: How do you choose topics for the entomology videos you work on?

Adrian Smith: I have been mainly making videos about research papers, both my own and my friends’. The idea is that the videos are prepared so that they debut the day the research papers are first published. They are also incorporated into the institutional press release, if there is one, for the paper.

What elements make a video effective for conveying academic entomological research to the public?

I try to make it about people as much as possible. Beyond explaining research discoveries, the main point of the videos is to have the scientist on screen representing their research and the motivations for doing it. I try to incorporate the idea that, while the research discoveries are interesting, it’s also interesting that someone has chosen to study that particular thing as a job. So, what I want to communicate, to a lay public audience, is 1) here’s something new about nature, and 2) here’s someone who has a really weird job doing something no one else in the world does and they are going to explain why they do what they do.

The other side of this answer is distribution and getting it in front of people. That’s why I try to tie the videos to a press release. Online science news coverage is largely based on reporters or writers working from press releases. Often times those press releases get posted as-is or only slightly modified as online news pieces. So, my goal is to make the videos available as compelling pieces of pre-made media in the press release so that online outlets can immediately repost the video or link to it.

You’ve created several videos in which you discuss entomological research with non-scientists (like your mom, or teenagers). What makes that concept compelling?

Those videos are unscripted, unrehearsed and, hopefully, an honest reaction and discussion about the science. When I go into shooting them, I have some talking points that I want to cover, but beyond that I have no idea what I am going to get. I think all of those unknowns add to the honesty of those videos and, hopefully, make them compelling.

What other advice would you offer to fellow research entomologists on video communication?

I’ll be presenting on this very subject at the Entomology 2017 meeting in Denver. [Editor’s note: Look for the Program Symposium “Igniting the Spark: Science Communication by the Next Generation for Entomologists,” on the conference slate.] My short answer is that entomologists, and scientists in general, have an unprecedented opportunity to represent their own work on a mass-media global level. Online video has an unlimited audience and little to no barriers to entry. Plus, when you make videos about research, most researchers will already have access to a means of promoting that video through working with their institutional public information officers or even the media relations people associated with whoever is publishing their research.

My biggest point of advice for anyone who wants to start doing videos is to just start making them. Don’t worry about doing it the “right” way, doing it perfect, or doing it like someone else. Just making something and seeing it to completion is an achievement and more than many others will do. The more I make things, the more I learn about how to make things better the next time. As long as you are creating things that you think have a good reason for existing, you can’t go too wrong.

What past video of yours is your favorite, and why?

I like “Ant Queen Chemicals with Mom.” There were a lot of firsts for me with that video: It was the first video I made after getting my new faculty position at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, my first unscripted video, and probably the first time I had talked about one of my research papers in that much detail with my mom. I’m also proud of it because it was a video concept that I hadn’t seen done in science videos before. I wasn’t sure it would work or would be something that I could pull off. But, I think I accomplished what I wanted for that video in tone, content, and execution. I could make a better edit if I was doing it today, but it’s about as good of a video as I could do then.

YouTube Your Entomology ContestCall for Videos

2017 ESA YouTube Your Entomology Video Contest

Entries due July 2

Also, new this year: ESA Plant-Insect Ecosystems Section’s Pollinator Video Contest, entries due October 1

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