As someone who sees lots and lots of STEM music videos, I’m rarely surprised by new creations in this realm. But surprise is exactly what I felt upon discovering Prof. Jeremy Long’s 2nd annual Chemical Ecology Filmfest, in which teams of students summarized primary research literature via music videos. (Don’t have access to the full text of Multiple factors promoting narrow host range in the sea hare, Aplysia californica (S.C. Pennings, 1990)? Just consult the song instead!) The 3rd annual Filmfest, released last December, continued in a similar vein.
Read on find out more about Prof. Long and his filmfests!
[Prof. Jeremy Long with students and a research subject. Photo from sdsu.edu.]
SAS&M: Tell us a bit about your education and your current position.
JL: Science education: BA in Marine Science from USD, PhD in Aquatic Biology from Georgia Tech, Postdoc at Northeastern University. My interest in chemical ecology started late as an undergrad and was attracted to Georgia Tech because of their emphasis in aquatic chemical ecology. In grad school, I focused on the weird ability of a phytoplankton species to smell its predators and respond by shifting shape in a predator-specific way. I am an Assistant Professor in Biology at SDSU, started 2009. I split my time between campus and our marine lab. Much of my research occurs at the marine lab because of access to flow-through seawater for running experiments with living organisms. For this semester, I am the interim director of the marine lab. I train undergrads, Masters, and PhD students (via our joint-doc program with UC Davis).
Rap education: the first tapes I remember owning were Run DMC “Raising Hell” and Beastie Boys “Licensed to Ill.” I watched A LOT of YO MTV Raps (which I think accounts for much of my rhythm and dancing skills). I’m fairly old school in my music tastes… EPMD, GangStarr, NWA, Biggie Smalls, etc.
Video education: I give props to Randy Olson, a former marine biologist who now is faculty at USC film school. His video Barnacles Tell No Lies is a MUST SEE. I also give props to Dr. Carl Winter (Food Safety scientist) who made music parodies about food safety. And Dr. Tyrone Hayes has been known to summarize his talks at the end with a short rap.
SAS&M: So far, your YouTube channel includes three rounds of the so-called Chemical Ecology Filmfest. What is this — is it associated with a course you teach? — and how did it get started?
JL: You got it. I try to teach chemical ecology once per year in the fall. Some of my friends have indicated that they look forward to the release of these videos each year. I wanted to try this my first semester in 2009 but I made the mistake of requiring a unanimous vote and a few students voted against this. The first round, I let the students focus on a general “role” of chemical signals (e.g. chemical defense). I quickly realized that this wasn’t going to be a long term theme. Thus, the current model is for me to pick a bunch of papers from which the students can select. I think we’ve got the entertainment value down … and I do think there’s value in having the public see scientists in an approachable light. But my hope is that we’re going to move towards enhancing retention of the content of these videos. We’re just now thinking about ways of doing this.
SAS&M: The students do a nice job, but seem to have varied levels of musical training and ability. Do they receive any instruction on how to write songs or make videos?
JL: My goal is to not make the grading based on raw musical talent, especially given that this is a science class. However, I emphasize that quality at all levels (lyrics, song, and video) can be achieved with lots of effort, and that poor effort is obvious. I divide the assignment into the different components (lyrics, song, video), so that I can give feedback that can be addressed. The advantage of assembling the videos from previous courses is that I can now highlight strengths and weaknesses of specific videos. I think this is improving overall quality of videos. I also have 2-3 training sessions where I go through the basics of the software. Right now, we’re using Garageband and iMovie b/c they’re easy but we’re planning to transition to FinalCutPro.
SAS&M: Have you gotten any reactions or feedback from any of the researchers whose papers were summarized as music videos?
JL: As you might imagine, they are pretty stoked … perhaps just to see that students are actually learning about their science. One of my favorite parts of the course is passing along the positive feedback from the PIs to the students. I also just passed along your sagebrush quiz [based on the filmfest song Sagebrush] to the students and they were stoked. Many of them have indicated an interest in creating links to these videos on their webpages but I haven’t really tracked this.
And while I do my best to correct inaccuracies, I sometimes fail at this. These are a little embarrassing but they’re also an opportunity to learn more via dialogue with the PIs. For an example, see the comments section in the Party Cuz I Found my Prey video.
SAS&M: Have you had any push-back from students and/or faculty who think the Filmfest is misguided? How do you (or how would you) justify the effort that gets put into it?
JL: I was definitely worried about this. However, my impression is that there is general support for this novel teaching method at SDSU. This holds true even for the saltier scientists. Perhaps more telling is that I’m getting very good feedback when I include this in the Broader Impacts section of proposals. In fact, I have an existing grant through Sea Grant that has funding to support the production of these videos. And that’s basically how I justify this … bringing science to a broader science is now expected of our research programs.
SAS&M: Beyond your teaching at San Diego State, you are also doing some K-12 science outreach using rap. Why are you doing that? How is it going?
JL: This is brand new. I’ve strategically partnered with a progressive teacher who has a group of students that participate in a focused, science learning academy. Thus far, it’s going really well. I’ve heard some of their songs and they have potential to make great videos. Major funding agencies (e.g. NSF) encourage outreach at all levels. I hypothesize that these videos may help attract K-12 students to science … because of their basic connection to the music.
SAS&M: What additional science/music question should I have asked you, and what’s your answer?
JL: “Why aren’t you making more of your own videos?”
Believe me, I’m chomping at the bit. I’m flirting with the idea of moving away from the parody … creating completely new lyrics and melodies … and maybe collaborating with others to create new beats too. I think Christopher Emdin is creating a more thorough hip-hop experience when he connects with students (e.g. graffiti, cypher circles, etc.).