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Science, the movie

23 April 2014

The art of writing a scientific paper hasn’t changed much over the last century or so. Abstract, Introduction, Results, Discussion: the basic structure has remained the same. Change is afoot, however, with a peer-reviewed scientific video journal, the Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE).

Katja Loos, Ivana Vukovic and Sergey Punzhin
Katja Loos, Ivana Vukovic and Sergey Punzhin

As the saying goes, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. So, the founders of JoVE must have thought, why not visualize experiments rather than describe them in dull text? The journal is devoted, as its website states, ‘to publishing scientific research in a visual format to help researchers overcome two of the biggest challenges facing the scientific research community today; poor reproducibility and the time and labor intensive nature of learning new experimental techniques.’

It’s Monday morning and a cameraman has arrived at the Physics and Chemistry building at the University of Groningen to shoot a ‘scientific video’. Professor of Polymer Chemistry Katja Loos receives him in her office, with the two stars-to-be, Ivana Vukovic and Sergey Punzhin.

The video will be a remake: ‘We published a paper in the journal ACS Nano in 2011, and JoVE asked if we were interested in producing a video version’, Loos explains. The paper explained how to create ‘nano-foams’ (more on this later). ‘Ivana and Sergey, the first two authors, loved the idea. And I feel it is proper recognition of their work.’ That explains why Ivana and Sergey are now poring over the script and rehearsing their lines.

The Script

Sergey rehearsing his lines.
Sergey rehearsing his lines.

The day is dominated by ‘The Script’. The scientists and JoVE editors needed to produce a good script before cameraman Sean Glavey could be dispatched. Ivana and Sergey have a limited number of lines, in which they introduce the paper and present their conclusion. A narrator will provide a voice-over for the rest of the video.

Sean sets up his equipment in a lab. It’s the second lab he’s been shown, because a pump made too much noise in the first. Sergey is off in a world of his own as he sits on a stool and rehearses his lines. Ivana walks around, seemingly more relaxed. Appearing on camera is not on the average PhD curriculum. The two scientists will stand in front of a fume cupboard that is richly decorated with notes. ‘Can I get rid of the papers on the glass panel?’ Sean asks.

There is even a clapperboard, just like in the real movies. Ivana’s successor, PhD student Vincent Voet, is the lucky one who gets to clap it when Sean calls out the scene number from the script, something everybody must have dreamed of doing.


Ivana on camera
Ivana on camera

Ivana is on first with a rather complicated sentence involving lots of technical terms. Sean, who does a couple of these sessions each month, is encouraging about her first attempt. ‘But you are allowed to breathe between sentences’, he says.

In the first take, Ivana looks straight into the camera rather than at the person next to it. In the second, she fluffs her lines. In the third she is, ‘very good, but you’re looking into the lens again’. In the fourth she is ‘really good’, but the lab coat made a scratching noise when she moved her hands. The fifth take has Sean satisfied. ‘And mind you, in my experience, the average is eight takes per scene.’

Then Sergey is on. Despite all the rehearsing, he can’t remember his second line. The next take is much better though, and Sean is satisfied with the third already. ‘But I’ll do one more, with a different framing.’ They return to Katja Loos’s office, where Sergey stands in front of the bookcase to speak his concluding lines. ‘Hang on, let’s get his PhD thesis in the picture’, Loos says. Some rearranging and the thesis is in full view. Again, Sergey forgets his lines, and this time his recovery is hindered by giggles from Ivana, but he gets it right well within the average eight takes.

A disclaimer is a compulsory part of the video, and Ivana tells the viewers they shouldn’t try the experiment without the necessary protective gear. The corridor outside Loos’s office is chosen for this important line. Needless to say, someone down the corridor sneezes loudly halfway through the perfect shot.

Still, it’s just three takes for Ivana, so things are going smoothly. Although, what with choosing locations and preparing for each take, it has taken almost an hour and a half to record just a handful of lines.

Funny comments

Sergey demonstrating his moves.
Sergey demonstrating his moves.

The rest of the day is spent filming the technical procedures. Like in any cooking programme, the team has prepared samples earlier, so Sean doesn’t have to wait around for the procedures to finish. There’s no more talking on camera – a professional narrator will explain this part.

It still takes time to find the right angle and move to the different locations. Simply walking to a stove and opening it isn’t as easy as it sounds, and it also proves a bit of a problem to find a lab coat without any funny comments written on the front. The monthly test of the air-raid siren doesn’t help either.

The team needs more than half a day for the technical takes, and it is well after six by the time they have finished. Sean then returns to Amsterdam, where he will submit his material to the editors. Loos will have to wait for the results.

It takes another month before an edited version is available. ‘And then there was a lovely animation but in the wrong order.’ Loos therefore had to correct the proofs and hope for the best. The final version came online in May.

Katja Loos, Ivana and Sergey
Katja Loos, Ivana and Sergey

So was it worth all the effort and expense (a few thousand euros)? ‘As I said, it’s a mark of appreciation for Ivana and Sergey’, says Loos. ‘But it does take a lot of time and when it comes down to it, JoVE has no impact factor.’

The impact factor determines the importance of a journal, and as JoVe has none the video doesn’t count as output for her group. ‘That’s why I wouldn’t only publish a paper in JoVE, but as a remake it was fun to do.’

Apart from the one by the Loos group, 7 papers by University of Groningen scientists and 5 from the UMCG are in JoVE archives. At the time of writing,  43 papers by scientists working in The Netherlands were published by JoVE.


What was it all about?

The paper describes the construction of a metal ‘nano-foam’. ‘We start out with something called a block copolymer, which is made up of two different monomers’, Loos explains. Mixed in the right proportions, the polymer takes on an intricate pattern on the nanometer scale.

‘We then dissolve one of the two components and fill the space with a metal, in our case nickel.’ The nickel is consequently moulded into the same shape as the dissolved monomer. The final stage is to burn off the remaining polymer, leaving a nickel ‘cast’ of the structure.

‘This means we can make a nano-foam with a defined structure. If you suspend such a foam in a buffer solution and pass a current through it, it contracts and forms an actuator.’ Such an actuator will not drive anything big, but could be useful in a ‘lab-on-a-chip’, where it could move components.

Last modified:10 April 2018 1.06 p.m.
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