Friday, June 17, 2016

BU's High-tech Interns

Ricardo Ballesteros and Alex Theodosopoulos work on creating animations on the large screens of the BURECS media lab.
Photo by M. O'Hanlon

BU's High-tech Interns  

The stark white walls of the BURECS media lab are covered in monitorseverywhere you look, a reflection is staring back at you from the black screens. At times, they are decorated with ultra high-resolution panoramic images of Antarcticas dry valleys. Most daysand at curious times of the nightthis is where one can catch a sandy-haired, hippie-looking, vegetarian named Keith Heyward, who works as the BURECS media guru. This summer, hes hosting four of the programs students.

These students are at home inside this futuristic control center. A different gadget lies on each tablean Oculus Rift here, a drone used for aerial photography there. Despite the rooms imposing digital capacity, the students seem laid back and comfortable, a demeanor they seem to have adopted from the man in charge.

Right now, the interns are editing and adding visual aids to their TedTalks”—videos that were created by the BURECS students last fall. These 2-3 minute presentations cover short explanations of environmental topics ranging from ocean currents to solar effects on Earths climate. According to the interns, the process of creating the animations for these videos is slow because of all the minuscule details. Two of the interns working on the video, Danielle Letsche and Praveen Menon, have a five-minute conversation about the exact timing of the animation of rain falling from a cloud. In another corner of the room, Ricardo Ballesteros drags a window from a computer monitor onto a digital drawing pad while Alex Theodosopoulos tells him which of the many Illustrator tools to use.

Animation of the conveyor belt theory taken from 
Praveen Menon's video on ocean currents. 
Although Heyward initially guided them, the students took over the learning process after the first week and are now mostly self-guided. Theyve learned how to use all the software in Adobe Creative Cloud and are now easily moving between Photoshop, After Effects and other programs, competently creating animations of the scientific processes the students talked about in their videos. Concepts like the one Praveen describes in his video would be very difficult to visualize without animations, said Letsche of the usefulness of their work. In that particular video, red and blue animated arrows have been drawn on a picture of the globe in order to demonstrate the circulation of hot and cold waters across the oceans. According to the interns, visuals such as this facilitate comprehension for an audience lacking a scientific background and help to promote engagement throughout the two to three minute videos. If the videos are short and concise with lots of visuals, then they can be a really useful tool, said Theodosopoulos. The faster that we can get the point across, the more useful the videos will be to educate a general audience. Beyond educating the public about scientific phenomena, science communications tools such as these can be used to facilitate the process of scientific research. The students are excited to learn about several new technologies Heyward has been experimenting with in recent months.

Praveen Menon and Alex Theodosopoulos 
discuss the number of photographs of the rock 
that they need to take from different angles. 
Photo by M. O'Hanlon
At the moment, Heyward is preparing to photograph rocks from Antarctica in order to create high-resolution 3D models. These rocks were gathered from dozens of field missions to the Antarctic Dry Valleys. Here at BU, they are stored along with ancient Antarctic ice and volcanic ash in the basement of BUs College of Arts and Sciences in a large room known as Little Antarctica. Currently, the lack of a photographic organization system makes it difficult to locate these rock samples within the rooms labyrinthine shelving system. I want create a digital database for research use, said Heyward of this plan to photograph and catalog the rocks. Once complete, each 3D model would include a spreadsheet of its specific characteristics information like the date it was collected, an estimate of its age, mineral composition, and the GPS location from which it was collected.

In addition to creating animations, Heyward has other big plans for his interns this summer that include updating his website,, which hosts a collection of panoramic images taken in Antarctica. Heyward says that he intends to add more text to his site to make it tour-like. Although it features stunning panoramic images of the Antarctic Dry Valleys, he says it lacks the content to make sense of the images it features. Eventually, Heyward and his interns will also experiment with drones to capture images for more extensive panoramas to be featured on this website. He hopes to create a high-resolution, Google Earth-type of experience where a user can zoom in on a specific rock to examine it. Heyward thinks that this method has the potential to be used as an alternative to hiking around the vast continent of Antarctica to collect data.

The information provided by these 3D images and panoramas would be of use scientists attempting to replicate experiments done in the BURECS lab. In general, scientists methods arent well-documented, Heyward said, this has been a recent issue in the news.As a program that stresses the unity in science between research, education, and communication, BURECS has made it a goal to find solutions to problems such as this. This issue, which is becoming known as the Replication Crisis has gained recent attention in the media as a problem across all scientific fields. More than 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist's experiments, and more than half have failed to reproduce their own experiments, said writer and editor, Monya Baker, for Nature Magazine in a recent story featured their website. Although less than 31% [of scientists] think that failure to reproduce published results means that the result is probably wrong, the story reports, this issue still highlights the lack of effective communication between scientists in their respective fields.

Although Heywards interns are just beginning to dip their toes into the waters of scientific media, they are well aware that the work done in BURECS has the potential to come up with innovative strategies for problem solving. As they begin work using communication technologies to aid in the education and documentation of science, they will be breaking ground in making science not only accessible, but attractive to mainstream audiences.

-Morgan O'Hanlon

This time-lapse video record by Ricardo Ballesteros displays 
the intricate set-up process for 3D modeling. 

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