USC holds first science-themed filmmaking competition

Envision a romantic comedy with a science-based plot.

The leading roles are biologists, let’s say, working in the same lab, using Schizoaccharomyces pombe to find a cure for cancer. Love ensues, followed by some terrible mishap in the lab, a breakup, makeup and the obligatory walk down the aisle.

Viewers could laugh, cry and learn something about genome instability – when cells start to make mistakes in dividing and replicating, leading to cancer – along the way.

This is one of endless possibilities for a plot in USC’s first science-themed filmmaking competition. USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences professors Clifford Johnson and Anna Krylov organized the competition with funds from the Anton Burg Foundation.

The deadline for competition registration is Oct. 8 and the final submission deadline is Jan. 11. The winners will receive $2,500, $1,500 and $500 for first, second and third prize, respectively. Students from throughout USC are encouraged to compete. Each team will present a short film or documentary in any genre explaining and illustrating a scientific concept, principle or issue for an audience of non-experts.

A jury of USC faculty and outside experts will determine the winners. At the conclusion, there will be a film showcase and awards ceremony.

Teams can be comprised of students from different USC schools and departments, giving everyone an opportunity to learn from each other. Each team must include at least one student from a USC Dornsife science department, the USC Viterbi School of Engineering or the Keck School of Medicine of USC and at least one from the USC School of Cinematic Arts or the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. The competition is not an official class or program of any school.

“The biggest obstacle may be students not reaching out to students in other schools,” said Johnson, professor of physics and astronomy. “So I’d love to hear from faculty in all parts of USC who can help act as ‘matchmakers,’ helping me put students in touch with each other.”

The objective is to better communicate science to the general public. In essence, the festival helps future filmmakers, scientists, writers, journalists – or students pursuing any field – learn how to communicate scientific ideas.

“The key to getting better communication about science in the media, in entertainment and in all aspects of our daily lives is through increased contact between those with the knowledge and those with the responsibility to communicate,” Johnson said. “Right now, most journalists and filmmakers, either in documentary or in entertainment, aren’t in the practice of working with scientists even when they’re doing something involving science.

“Many of them have never even met a scientist,” Johnson said. “And the same is true on the other side. Most scientists or engineers have no appreciation for what it takes to make a film and communicate ideas either explicitly, say in documentary form, or implicitly, say through drama, and have probably never met a filmmaker or journalist.”

Johnson said he hears scientists complain that films or news stories never get the science right.

“We can take major steps to change this situation by training a new generation of scientists, engineers and communicators who will understand and appreciate each other’s fields more, through collaboration,” Johnson said. “Better films will be made for sure, and for the students, the sort of contacts that get made at this stage in their careers will likely stay with them into the future.”

Krylov, professor of chemistry, said communicating science to the general public is crucial for science to maintain a competitive edge.

“We need people to know why it’s important to invest in fundamental research – science funding is really hurting now – and we want younger generations to be excited about doing science,” she said.

Krylov said science is often communicated at “unacceptably trivialized levels” because journalists and filmmakers often lack scientific background.

“On the other hand, scientists often fail to communicate, in an exciting way, their research to laymen because they are not trained in showmanship skills,” Krylov said. “Clifford and I think that bringing aspiring scientists and journalists together will bridge this gap and make a real difference in science communication.”

This project capitalizes on the lessons Johnson and Krylov learned while working on Shine a Light and Laser, two films that have been well-received by the community with more than 40,000 views on YouTube and enthusiastic feedback from educators and the public. The videos have been translated into four languages.

The fun part is that Johnson and Krylov have no idea what kinds of films will be made or what concepts will be covered. The professors said some faculty members may have their students enter the contest for a course project.

“Science and its impact on our lives is such a huge subject that can be done in so many ways, so I’ve no idea what to expect,” said Johnson, who co-wrote a play about scientists, has co-produced educational videos and is creating a physics-related graphic novel. Johnson also works on Asymptotia, an “everyman” science blog.

“The more students who participate, the more variety we’ll see. I hope we’ll see a variety of narrative choices, from standard documentary right through to drama. I can even imagine a romantic comedy. As long as science shines through, everyone wins.”

For more information, visit sciencefilms.usc.edu. Faculty who wish to help connect students to the competition may contact Clifford Johnson at [email protected]

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