Out of Their Element: Science Students Produce Films in Costa Rica

In the warm, humid air of the rain forest, with the voices of katydids in the trees outside, the darkened room burst into applause. As the credits rolled on the first screenings of their films, a roomful of tired students discovered the joy of reaching an audience with a captivating story. But these weren’t film students… in fact, they could hardly have been farther from film school. They were graduate students in biology, who had never imagined that film production might be part of their professional training.

Since 1964, the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) has led an immersive graduate field course in Costa Rica. Students from the U.S. and around the world compete to be selected for the course. Then, over a period of 1-2 months, the course travels throughout the small Central American nation and the students conduct original research projects in half a dozen different ecosystems along the way.

Nate Dappen shows the ant group how to operate an SLR camera.
Nate Dappen shows the ant group how to operate an SLR camera.

Stephen Hubbell, a distinguished ecologist at UCLA, took the course in its infancy – before OTS was even officially chartered. “It was really a transformative experience for all of the students,” Hubbell remembers. “They fell in love with natural history and ecology and just couldn’t get enough of it.”

Many of the world’s foremost biologists and ecologists are alumni of OTS field courses. Peter Narins, an expert in frog communication at UCLA, calls his cohorts from the 1973 course “A virtual ‘Who’s Who’ in ecology today.”

The OTS Tropical Biology course has stuck to the same fundamentals for 50 years: 1) lots of time in the field (“the field” is what biologists call any place where research is done outside of a lab), and 2) a series of short, intense, student-designed research projects in different ecosystems – a kind of hands-on crash course in scientific inquiry.

The bat group films a collared peccary at La Selva Biological Station.
The bat group films a collared peccary at La Selva Biological Station.

But in the last 50 years, the reality of being a scientist has changed. The academic job market has become ruthlessly competitive, so only a small percentage of science students who earn PhDs will become professors. At the same time. while science has become increasingly important in our daily lives, scientists have developed an image problem – surveys consistently show that most Americans don’t know a scientist, don’t understand what scientists do, and often don’t trust the scientific process.

So in 2014, for the first time in 50 years, the OTS Tropical Biology course began to train science students in communication. Jane Zelikova, the co-coordinator for the 2014 course, explains: “These days, it’s not enough to publish papers and get grants to get a faculty position. I think scientists can still make a huge difference outside of academia. It is critical for scientists to reach out and share their scientific vision and passion with the rest of the world. That’s why I wanted to include a science communication component in the course.”

Visiting professor Terry McGlynn, an expert on tropical ants, points out: “Many of us scientists are also employed as educators. That shouldn’t stop at the classroom.”

The bat group films in the mud at La Selva Biological Station.
The bat group films in the mud at La Selva Biological Station.

During the intense month-long Winter 2014 course, the class of 18 students collaborated to maintain a daily blog and podcast. And they did something even more ambitious: they produced their first science films for the web. That’s where I came in. Course coordinators Jenny Stynoski and Jane Zelikova invited me and my colleague Nate Dappen to come to La Selva Biological Station in the Caribbean lowlands. Our goal was to help the students produce their first science films.

Nate and I first met as students in the 2008 OTS Tropical Biology course. We were fresh-faced young grad students, eager to become academics after we earned our PhDs. But as time passed, Nate and I grew more aware of science’s image problem. We started a small production company in grad school and decided, after finishing our PhDs in 2012, to focus on producing science media full time.

Now, we were getting back to our roots: returning to Costa Rica where we had first met and – hopefully – inspiring a new group of young scientists to care about engaging the public with their passion for science.

If I had been a student in that classroom on the first day of our film workshop, I wouldn’t have been happy about the additional assignment I was being handed: in just three days, each group of 4-5 students had to complete not only a faculty-led research project, but also a 3-minute web film about the project.

We wasted no time. We spent one afternoon teaching the students the basics of exposure and composition. The next morning, they got their hands on SLR cameras and shot their first “scenes” around the La Selva campus. That afternoon, they used video editing software for the first time and cut their footage into a coherent 30-second scene. After this 2-day “boot camp,” we turned the students loose and hoped for the best!

The ant group editing their film on the computer.
The ant group editing their film on the computer.

Nate and I took turns visiting each group as they captured footage and sound in the field. We sat down with the “editor” of each group as he or she began to assemble their film on the computer. Film production schedules are always hectic, but this was a new level of intensity – the students had to learn a whole suite of new skills and put them into practice, all on a tight deadline. Up until the final morning, with a Student Film Festival (open to all the researchers and staff at La Selva) looming close on the horizon, we weren’t sure they were going to make it.

They made it. See for yourself! The winning video is at the top of the post, and the others are below:

The bat group (Camilo Calderón Acevedo, Rochelle Kelly, Vona Kuczynska, Leith Miller, Lisa Powers, and faculty mentor Gloriana Chaverri) produced a lovely video following on one member of their group – Leith Miller – who was experiencing bat research for the very first time.

Bats, OTS 2014-1 Grad Course, La Selva from OTS grad course on Vimeo.

The spider group (Jimena Golcher Benavides, Lauren Frazee, Chris Holmes, Trisha Spanbauer, and faculty mentor Marcia Snyder) produced a great presenter-led video about the scientific study they performed at La Selva. Chris has an amazing natural on-screen presence… someone give this guy a TV show!

SpiderRiver, OTS 2014-1 Grad Course, La Selva from OTS grad course on Vimeo.

Finally, the ant group (Jennifer Blake, Chelsea Cook, Scott Kosiba, Sarah Stiffel, and faculty mentor Terry McGlynn) created a short that does a great job of framing a weird biological puzzle – why do bullet ants try to chew water with protein in it?

Ants, OTS 2014-1 Grad Course, La Selva from OTS grad course on Vimeo.

I find all four of these short films fun to watch. In every one, you can see the passion of young scientists; they’re learning how to engage an audience with their stories, not just tell the viewers scientific facts.

Science is an intrinsically creative process – there’s an art to designing experiments that help us understand our world – but producing a film required the students to flex a set of creative muscles that their scientific training had never forced them to exercise. It required them to master a new set of technical skills – most of them had never used an SLR camera or editing software before. And quite honestly, the results blew us (and the students, and the course coordinators, and the other researchers at La Selva) away! Sure, there were some all-nighters along the way, but in the end the Student Film Festival left us – and the students – invigorated.

Chris Holmes, a student at the University of Illinois, admitted that his previous training hadn’t prepared him to communicate with non-scientists. “Until now, I thought the success of the work I did could only be measured by others in my field reading my publications. Now I know that my work should aim to reach a broader range of people. Communication should be the primary driver of why we do science in the first place.” Jimena Golcher Benavides, a student at the University of Konstanz in Germany also emphasized the potential to reach non-scientists. Through video, “one could engage any other person in the world in science, no matter what profession.” Being able to communicate to broad audiences is empowering to a scientist. Leith Miller, a student at the University of Washington, realized that “everyone in our course has an extreme amount of power when it comes to communicating our research. That power comes from us learning how to present material that is complex in a more straightforward and creative way.” Doing outreach can also invigorate a scientist’s research. Scott Kosiba of Louisiana State University said, “I like the idea that I can actively engage both sides of my brain while focusing on the same topic. Needless to say, I am already looking for a camera to take into the Amazon with me.”

Most of the OTS students won’t become science filmmakers like Nate and I did. They will find jobs as researchers, consultants, and teachers. But the skills they learn from the revamped Tropical Biology course – blogging, podcasting, and yes, filmmaking – will become part of their professional toolkit. And whether they stay in science or not, they’ll be better at bridging the gap between scientists and the public.


Note: The frog film, “Changing Voices,” earned the most votes in the Student Film Festival. But it was close. Nate and I couldn’t agree which film we liked best. After watching all four, which one do you like the most? And what do you like about it? Leave your answers in the comments below!

Neil Losin is a National Geographic Explorer based in Boulder, Colorado. Neil founded Day’s Edge Productions in 2010 with his colleague Nate Dappen. Learn more about their most recent film, “Snows of the Nile,” here.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Neil Losin is a National Geographic Young Explorer. He is a biologist, photographer, and filmmaker pursuing his Ph.D. in UCLA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, where he studies the evolution of territoriality in lizards. When he isn’t doing his own research, Neil uses photography and video to help fellow scientists communicate about their work. He is the co-founder and Editor of SustainableFocus.org, a web community and magazine promoting visual communication about science and the environment. You can see his photography at www.neillosin.com, and check out his videos and blog at www.daysedgeproductitons.com.