Grad Student Partners With Pixar to Tell Science Stories

A photo of a sign that reads, "Pixar Animation Studios."

Photo credit: Jacob Davies at Flickr Creative Commons.

“So what are you doing at work?”

For a lot of people in STEM fields, that’s not an easy question to answer. That seems insignificant, but it creates distance between people in science and the rest of us—a distance that lowers the ambient scientific awareness of the population at large.

Sara ElShafie, a grad student at UC Berkeley, knew that trouble. Trying to explain her studies in integrative biology to her family was always difficult, and she recognized that she wasn’t able to express the importance she found in her work. Since her goal in life is to become the director of a major science museum, she yearned to be able to communicate better.

That’s what led her, in 2015, to contact the outreach department of Pixar Animation Studios and ask if they could work with her to teach students how to adapt film-making ideas for science communicators.

“I just thought, ‘Why not?’” said ElShafie in an interview with Berkeley News. “Communication skills require training, just like any other skills. Good communication requires good storytelling. Maybe we can learn from professional storytellers.”

Her efforts snared her two volunteers from the studio, and together, they worked up a pilot seminar, and began presenting workshops in March of 2016. Participants in the workshops follow a template that illustrates the links between film-making and science, and emerge with a story outlined about their own research.

Since the first informal workshop, the audience has grown to nearly 200 people per seminar. ElShafie hopes to continue holding it yearly at Berkeley, and has presented it by invitation at UC Santa Barbara and the Western Society of Naturalists.

“It has never been more critical for scientists to be able to explain science to the public effectively, and the backbone of all communication is a story,” said ElShafie, adding that humanizing the tellers of these stories can combat misconceptions about the “agenda” of scientists.

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