Alda Alumni: Sara ElShafie
Sara ElShafie is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, where she studies the impact of climate change on reptile communities. Inspired by storytelling techniques used in filmmaking, she created a workshop series called “Science Through Story.” She has also collaborated with volunteer artists from Pixar Animation Studios to offer science storytelling workshops at conferences and UC campuses. Over the last two years, Sara has worked with scientists and artists to organize a symposium, “Science Through Narrative: Engaging Broad Audiences,” which took place at the Society for Integrative & Comparative Biology Annual Meeting in San Francisco in January, 2018. Peer-reviewed papers from the symposium are now published in the society's journal.
What sparked your interest in storytelling?
A year into my doctoral program at Berkeley, I was really excited about my research, but I realized that I was struggling to explain my work in a meaningful way to my family. My relatives tell each other stories all the time, so the most logical place to start seemed to be storytelling. I had always loved movies, and I lived near several major studios, so I thought, “why not reach out to professional storytellers in the film industry and learn from them?”
How did your interaction with Pixar come about?
Pixar is a particularly useful point of reference for public engagement with science because the studio specializes in creating engaging stories that appeal to both children and adults. When I started talking to artists there, they were just as intrigued that someone other than an aspiring filmmaker could benefit so much from their perspectives. That’s why the project grew and continues today. Plus, there are a lot of science geeks at Pixar who are just as excited to talk to scientists as scientists are to talk to filmmakers.
Could you speak about the connection between science and filmmaking?
When I started working with film artists, I was struck by how much I had in common with them as a science communicator. We both have the challenge of taking a complex body of material and distilling from it the most concise and compelling story possible for a given audience. All artists go through this process, but filmmakers have the added challenge of creating a visual journey for the audience that supports the story. This is useful for science communicators to think about, whether they are creating a video or a slide presentation.
What unique challenges do you face in communicating about climate change?
Climate change is both everywhere and nowhere. We can point to specific effects of climate change everywhere – rising sea levels, melting glaciers, rampant wildfires, more frequent and intense hurricanes, etc. And yet, it is difficult to help people connect with an abstract and invisible thing like CO2 levels in the atmosphere or the ocean. It’s also tricky to figure out how to frame any given climate change issue in a way that will resonate with the target audience and put them in the desired frame of mind about that issue. But storytelling can help with both of those challenges. It trains you to think creatively about the character point of view, setting, and situation that will most resonate with an audience and get the message across.
What was your experience at the Alda Center's Boot Camp like?
Boot camp was fascinating. I came in on Day 1 thinking that I knew what my research was about. But by lunch on Day 2, I felt like I had no clue anymore. I had to focus completely on my audience and what they would respond to in order to figure out what to say. It was the first time that I fully understood that communication is about reading and responding to your audience. That is more important than getting in everything that you want to say. I saw the other participants in the program go through a similar process. The Alda Center instructors were very skilled at promptly throwing us way out of our comfort zones, and then gently and firmly helping us build ourselves back up.
How do you incorporate the skills you learned at Boot Camp into your work?
The training that I received at the Alda Center really helped me to improve both my presentation and my facilitation skills. When I give workshops now, I am more attuned to my audience and able to adjust the pace and focus of the workshop according to their responses and questions. The training also made a difference in my personal life: I now find it easier and more enjoyable to carry on conversations with people whose views differ from mine. When we worked on that skill in the boot camp, I made more progress in three hours than I had in three years!
*Photo courtesy of Helina Chin, University of California Museum of Paleontology.*