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Significant Details

The development of an embryo into a full-grown insect is a delicate process and a lot can go wrong on the way. Usually it doesn’t, but when it does, it can open up fascinating new lines of research. This happened to Kristen Panfilio when one of her experiments did absolutely not go as planned. The result were “necrotic zombies”, as she dutifully noted in her lab book. And they keep her busy to this day.

 

 

This interview is part of the series “Significant Details – Conversations with Women in Science”, where we talked with twelve female scientists from many different fields about their work and their life in science.

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Just quickly:
Today, we went online with Significant Details, the interview series with women in science.
The project is hosted over at Scilogs and on its own website here.

Enjoy.

 

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A quick housekeeping note (since it will get a bit busier here than usual in the weeks to come):

As of today, I officially begin reporting from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. I will be here as embedded science reporter for three months. Most of the blogging will take place over at SciLogs.com, where I have found a friendly temporary home with I, EVA: 12 weeks in the making of science.
There will be more reporting in various other places and I will channel my very own “river of science” here, at SciLogs and on Twitter. Look out for #I_EVA or follow @I_EVA1 for project updates.

Meanwhile, stay tuned for the “Significant Details”. While I am in Leipzig, postproduction continues full speed ahead. We are planning to release in May, but haven’t a fixed date yet.

Exciting times. Wohlan!

 

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While we are editing – here are some more details we picked up in the offices and labs of ‘our’ scientists:

 

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While some interviews are already in the editing room, we are also still on the road filming. Here are some snapshots from the various labs and offices. Nothing specific. Just things I noticed…

 

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The basis of this project is the claim, that everybody has one or several objects that accompany her and link closely to their work. The objects might sit in pant pockets or desk drawers or half-forgotten in the back of deep shelves, but they are always there. To claim this is a bit bold, however, because I have no data whatsoever to support this. Just anecdotal evidence. Which is fine, because this is film, not science.

But I admit that I was more than a bit flustered when somebody asked about my own “significant detail” and I wasn’t – for a long time – able to come up with one.

Until I finally realized – it’s this:

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I use it as a key chain now, but originally it was a cloakroom tag from one of the pithead baths of the Brown Coal State Combine Bitterfeld. I found it in the early 1990s and it has been in my pocket ever since and the aluminum stamping is actually beginning to wear quite thin.

At the time, I was still a biologist and working as a research student at the Bauhaus Dessau in a project about landscape planning and regional development. We were a motley crew of scientists, artists and developers from both sides of the old iron curtain, and we spent a lot of time exploring the various legacies of the former regime. Bitterfeld is a small town south of Dessau and at its time it was one of the industrial centers of the GDR. In the early 90s most of the production had been shut down, but the structures were still there for us to roam – abandoned factories, coal pits, mining dumps – a vast and often dystopian industrial landscape, uncannily like in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, disturbing and utterly fascinating at once.

It has been a long and meandering process since then, but I do believe that it was there that I became a filmmaker, at this place, with these people, seeing what we saw. I made my first film, years later (and after finishing my degree in biology), about brown coal mining landscapes, and I have made many films about history and nature since. But the old factories are gone, replaced by shiny new plants, the mining pits are flooded and have become lakes and even bird sanctuaries. So this little badge is my last physical connection to that old time and place. Which makes it a real treasure.

 

Fotos: Kai-Olaf Hesse


Bitterfeld and environs in the early 1990s. Fotos: Kai-Olaf Hesse

 

 

 

 

 

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Filming with scientists is one of the most enjoyable ways to make a living I can think of. The one thing that beats it, reliably, is not filming with scientists.

Quite often, usually while the camera crew is getting set up, I sit there with a (slightly distracted) scientist and the conversation turns to this or that unsual artefact on the desk/shelf/window sill. And almost every time they begin to tell the most outrageous stories, all true I am willing to believe, about explosions and misguided experiments, about epiphanies and fruitless expeditions, about missing links and missing data, about former failures and future questions. And every time, maddeningly, none of this is mentioned ever again as soon as the camera rolls.

Not this time!

This time, these objects, the catalysts for so many stories from the heart of science, will take center stage.

 

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Not one of ‘our’ details, unfortunately, though it clearly has potential… Contents of an Ostrich’s stomach* (National Media Museum)

 

* Frederick Willam Bond was photographer at the Zoological Society of London. Amongst more conventional photographs of the inhabitants of London Zoo, he also photographed objects retrieved from an ostrich’s stomach after its death. Details of what it swallowed are written on the back of the print.
Somehow, during its lifetime, the poor bird managed to ingest a lace handkerchief, a buttoned glove, a length of rope, a plain handkerchief (probably a man’s), assorted copper coins, metal tacks, staples and hooks, and a four-inch nail – a step too far, and the cause of death.

 

 

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Just before christmas we finally secured funding for a new project that has been in the making for a very long time. It’s called „Significant Details – Conversations with Women in Science“ and will be a series of video interviews with female scientists. About their career, their daily work, their experiences with science. Very simple, really, but already great fun, certainly for me at this point, because right now I am traveling the country meeting all these amazing people while trying to put together an as varied ensemble of female scientists as possible.

 

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Women are under-represented in science in most countries. Numbers are increasing, but slowly. Last year, a study by Lünenborg and Röser showed, that in Germany female scientists also go strongly under-reported in the media.

Representation in the media is important, though. Not only for the individual scientist, to increase her visibility and reputation, but, much more, for the rest of us, because it helps us, as a society, to adjust our perception of how science is done and who is doing it.

As Lünenborg and Röser point out: media representation is especially relevant with regard to leadership positions, in science and elsewhere, because most people have no or very little personal experience with these. So their opinion is formed mostly through the media. And one of the prevailing opinions about scientists is that they are male. Which somehow sticks in our heads, male and female alike, with all its undesired consequences.

 

The seed for this project was planted almost four years ago when I visited Science Online in North Carolina for the first time, a vibrant, dynamic and hugely original meeting of scientists, communicators, journalists, librarians, artists and many more, all related to science and the online world in one way or another.

At the time, I was still mostly working for television and had just begun to make my first careful steps into the world of online science communication. The newspaper crisis then was still in its early stages and the iPad little more than a rumour for most. Podcasts, however, had been around for a while and been used for science communication quite successfully. Microbes’s World Meet the Scientist with Carl Zimmer, Coast to Coast Bio Podcast (now closed), and Point of Inquiry are some of the earliest I remember. At Science Online they appeared as a given, a highly efficient tool in any science communicator’s box.

They were all audio, though, which I, as a filmmaker, always found a little sad. But I was immediately taken by their informal, direct and authentic way of talking to scientists and about science.

Back in Germany, it took me a while and some detours, and I am really glad that I now have an opportunity not only to add some video to the podcast world, but also to help increase the visibility of women in science.

All interviews will start from a specific object, a „significant detail“ from the women’s scientific life. They can be scientific objects or something completely off-topic that is related to science only by the women’s experience. From there, each conversation will take its individual course. No standardized questions, but a number of common themes, most likely. Fairly personal in tone, more portrait than presentation, more process than breakthroughs.

Finding the objects can be a bit tricky, but it seems worth the effort. So far, we have a bag of hazelnuts, a wisdom tooth, a musical clock playing „La Paloma“ and a vacuum coated Edelweiss. And a bag of good stories to go with them. You’ll see.

 

 

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