Thursday, September 19, 2013

Lights! Camera! Science!

 Testing the hydraulic drill on land before taking it underwater.  photo by Jess Harrop, The Years Project
What follows is my attempt to share an amazing experience I had last month. It all started earlier this year, when I got a very cryptic message about a "high-profile project involving climate change." After several chats about the incredible things we can learn from corals, and months of detailed logistical planning, on August 11th I found myself on a plane to one of my long-time research sites, Christmas (Kiritimati) Island, with a film crew from Years of Living Dangerously. I thought I knew what I was in for. Little did I know... (in my defense, my mental preparation was severely crippled by the string of late nights I had been pulling in anticipation of a big NSF proposal deadline on 8/15).

Some will ask why in Newton's name would I volunteer for such an undertaking? After all, it is a highly risky proposition:  place myself and my science in the hands of Big Hollywood, where sound-bytes and bikinis have more market value than my life's work as a scientist. And I'm a woman scientist -- one who would feel the viewer's judgment of my scientific worth months before shooting began. Yep. There is no doubt that the safe thing would have been to stay in my lab, cranking on our research, letting its merits be judged by an international network of geeky peers. But I felt absolutely compelled to do this shoot, as a climate scientist who is deeply invested in science communication, and even more so as a woman in science (and mother to 4 small children). My thought process went something like this:  "Hell yes, you can wear a bikini and wield a monster hydraulic drill while SCUBA diving!" and "Hell yes, you can be a good, even great, scientist and actively embrace opportunities to communicate your science to the public!" Because folks, if we cannot tackle these needling cultural issues in science, then science will fail to achieve its rightful place in the public discourse. Besides, my mom once told me never to make an important decision based on fear, and so, I leapt.
They're coming! Run (or swim) for it! photo by Sanjayan

The Years crew consisted of Jake Kornbluth (Producer), Jess Harrop (Associate Producer), Sanjayan (Correspondent), Paul Atkins (Cinematographer), Matthew Berner (Second Camera), and Chris Wiecking (Sound). To say that these people were professionals is an understatement. Not only did they have a driving mission to capture the beauty and the guts of our science, but they managed to do so while I steadily ticked off my ambitious list of scientific goals for my short week there. There were the requisite re-takes (literally marked by one of those "clapper" things closing down with a snap, with people saying things like "Rolling, and... action"). It would send me into nervous chuckles every time - not helpful. There were "bloopers", including one that had me swallowing seawater from laughing so hard. The science team, comprised of myself, my student Pamela Grothe, and FIT postdoc Lauren Toth, was referred to as "the talent", which I could definitely get used to. And there were some real-time reviews of my acting:  "We are definitely not going to win any Oscars with this!" Acting, as it turns out, is hard! Harder than debugging Matlab code or repairing my mass spec. And as a classic Type A over-achiever, I don't take failure lightly. I wanted to look like Angelina Jolie and sound like Carl Sagan. I fell far short on both axes, I'm afraid. It certainly didn't help that I was stung by an invisible sea creature on the first day and did most of my interviews fighting back allergy-induced tears.

But where I fell short, Christmas Island delivered in all its glory. A whole rainbow of blues and greens danced above water, and a vibrant reef ecosystem dazzled as a backdrop to our underwater drilling shoot. With the corals doing much of the talking, I told the story of the 1997/98 El Nino event, and tropical Pacific climate changes of the past and future, and sea level rise. And for the first time ever, I took a (forced) day off in the field, as we went bird-watching and manta-swimming in search of your basic tropical paradise glamour footage. Now it was my turn to see Sanjayan's face light up, and to learn more about the non-carbonate-excreting creatures on Christmas. Our week culminated in a feast
My birthday cake. Ko rabwa! (photo by L. Toth)
complete with sashimi (expected), a truly amazing chocolate birthday cake (very unexpected), a band of drummers who played several hundred PVC pipes with used flipflops (ah-may-zing), and an impromptu dance session that I truly hope has already been deleted from the raw footage.

So what did I learn? One clear take-away:  it's the people, stupid. Separated from our wireless devices (most notably smartphones and, in my case, kids), and confined on a remote tropical island for a whole week, we got to know each other quite well. While every fieldtrip yields scores of new samples to feed the mass specs, the friendships I made on this one were truly unique. And in a way, that's what the Years Project is all about:  climate change as a story told by real people, from one human to another.

Another obvious lesson:  damn I love my job! It's not an exaggeration to say that I am obsessed with corals, and the Line Islands, and climate change, so the combination typically sends me into a veritable frenzy. It's always great to share that passion with my students on-site, but this time, in front of the cameras, I felt both the burden and the privilege of being the public face of the corals that have revealed so much about climate change in this region, and the island that has offered up these precious time capsules.

I certainly gave it my all. For science, for women, for Christmas Island, for the planet.
Diving the "Coral Gardens". photo by Lauren Toth