13 May 2018 Categories: Communication

Sara ElShafie used to struggle to explain her research to her family in a meaningful way. A UC Berkeley graduate student in integrative biology with an emphasis on how climate change affects animals over time, she says she “would always get lost in the details, and it was not doing justice to what is so amazing about natural history.”

But she doesn’t have that challenge anymore. Today, 28-year-old ElShafie is one of the few people in the country who focus on adapting storytelling strategies from the film industry to science communication. For the past year and a half, she has been leading workshops for scientists — primarily graduate students — on how to tell stories about their research that resonate with a broader audience.

ElShafie found her storytelling solution at Pixar Animation Studios, in Emeryville. A Pixar fan her entire life, she emailed the company’s outreach department in 2015 and asked if anyone there would like to talk with students at the UC Museum of Paleontology about how to adapt strategies for filmmaking to communicating science to people outside the scientific community.

“I just thought, ‘Why not?’” she says. “Communication skills require training, just like any other skills. Good communication requires good storytelling. Maybe we can learn from professional storytellers.”

To her surprise, two story artists at Pixar were interested and volunteered their time for the project. They collaborated with ElShafie to present a pilot seminar at the museum that attracted not only students, but faculty and staff. Seeing the project’s potential, ElShafie worked over the following year to develop a series of workshops inspired by Pixar. Last March, together with a Pixar collaborator, ElShafie presented the first public workshop on the Berkeley campus. Although the studio is not formally involved, additional artists at Pixar have been generously contributing their time and feedback.

Drawing on examples from Pixar films and scientific studies, the workshops illustrate storytelling strategies that make science accessible by reframing research into a story with characters, obstacles and revelations. According to ElShafie, these techniques help to overcome scientists’ difficulty with communicating science about non-human subjects. Pixar films — often about animals — are great models, she adds, because they have compelling themes and emotional depth and appeal to a broad audience.

In her workshops with scientists, ElShafie leads by example, turning her research on fossil lizards into a story about how the conflict of climate change affects animal characters over time. “Lizards alone aren’t going to be that interesting to most audiences,” ElShafie says, “but thinking about time, space and their connection with a major societal problem is.”

ElShafie’s workshops not only help participants frame a message, but develop a conceptual framework for introducing scientific topics in the form of a story. With a worksheet she’s created to illustrate the parallel between filmmaking and science, participants leave the workshop having made an outline of a story about their own research. Extended workshops also explore how to use the visual language of animated films in scientific presentations.

“She’s really enlightened the whole museum community on ways we can strengthen our own writing by applying storytelling techniques,” says Lisa White, assistant director of education and public programs at the UC Museum of Paleontology. White says she watched how ElShafie polished and perfected her workshop over the past school year and how the audience grew threefold, to nearly 200 people at workshops this spring.

ElShafie offered her first official workshop, “Science Through Story: Strategies to Engage Any Audience,” in November 2016 at the annual meeting of the Western Society of Naturalists in Monterey. It was a hit, and she started to receive invitations to present it at other institutions around the state and country.

Mallory Rice, a UC Santa Barbara graduate student who attended the Monterey workshop, invited ElShafie to present the workshop at her campus in April. “It was great to see the example of how she turned her own questions and research into a story, rather than thinking about (just presenting) it to the public with results and data,” Rice says.

ElShafie hopes to hold the workshop annually at Berkeley.

NOTE: For updates on ElShafie’s workshops, follow @sci_story on Twitter or join the mailing list for public workshops at tinyurl.com/science-story-mailing-list.

You can read the full article here.