I just returned home from yet another scientific conference. My mind is imbued with new facts and buzzing with ideas for future research. But I am exhausted from the traveling, the overindulging of coffee and cookies, and the enthusiastic conversations with colleagues. I will sleep well tonight. And, as I’ve learned from experience, my jetlagged dreams will be an endless stream of PowerPoint slides. Such is the fate of the traveling academic.
Over the years, I have become something of a PowerPoint connoisseur. I know all the tricks (bright room = white background + dark text), the dos and don’ts (keep it simple and cut those silly transitions) and, like most of us, I ignore them half of the time (I’m an inveterate bullet-point addict). At conferences, I’m reminded of the pivotal role PowerPoint – and its Apple counterpart, Keynote – has in scientific communication, how well and poorly it can be executed, and its great potential and many limitations for teaching.
But something unexpected happened at this recent academic meeting. On the second day, one of the invited speakers was elegantly progressing through a typical PowerPoint presentation when suddenly one of his slides came to life in an eye-catching 3D scientific animation. At once, everyone in the audience glanced up from their smartphones and tables to marvel at the movie.
I’ve seen many lecturers incorporate video into their talks, but in these past instances the clips were almost always of news interviews, documentary films or “home footage” from the laboratory or field. This time it was altogether different. The animation was professionally made for the speaker and tailored for the audience and meeting. Altogether, it lasted about five minutes, beginning with real (though scripted) footage of experiments being carried out in the lab, followed by a dazzling 3D animation of the malaria parasite lifecycle, highlighting stages pertinent to the research talk. Certain segments of the video had audio, whereas other parts were silent, allowing the speaker to elaborate in his own words on various details. When the video ended, the speaker switched back to standard PowerPoint slides, which for me felt like swapping a delicious fizzy drink for a mug of lukewarm tea. The video was such an attention grabber that it was hard to go back to flat, lifeless text and inert 2D figures.
However, I didn’t have long to complain. Later that morning it happened again: a keynote speaker began his talk with a custom-made digital animation of the molecular mechanisms that gave rise to complex cells. I was so taken with the intricate and stunning details of the molecular machines that at times I lost track of the message; perhaps my scientific mind is trained to digest PowerPoint, not video. Nevertheless, the animation remained in my thoughts long after the talk finished.
Later, I chatted with one of the speakers about his video and learned that it was produced commercially by a research scientist turned professional animator, cost at least a few thousand dollars, and was relatively time-consuming to make, involving a lot of scripting and editing. Overall, however, the speaker felt that it was worth the money and effort. “It’s a good investment,” he said. He could use the video at other conferences and talks, incorporate it into his teaching and departmental seminars, and use it for lab promotion and outreach. Indeed, high-quality videos are perfect add-ons to departmental and personal research websites and can be easily sent to colleagues, students, and journalists.
Admittedly, both of the researchers that showed videos at the meeting have well-funded, high-profile research programs, with enough resources to purchase non-essential materials, like sophisticated animations. Such an option is likely not possible for smaller lab groups that operate on tight budgets. But that may soon change.
With the arrival of novel, inexpensive multimedia technologies, a number of companies have started to advertise competitive pricing for professional scientific animations and promotional videos. Google the words “scientific animations services” and you’ll find a slew of biotech startups offering innovative communication tools for researchers and educators. For example, Stroma Studies, an award-winning scientific interactive studio in Seattle, boasts that it “can help with your animation needs at any step of the way, including consulting on content, script, storyboarding, 3D modeling and … compositing,” all within a framework that “fits in your budget.” Similarly, XVIVO markets itself as a provider of “internationally acclaimed 3D animation[s] for pharmaceutical companies, biotech companies, medical device firms, advertising agencies, educational organizations, museums and broadcast[ers].” Both Stroma Studies and XVIVO make a point of highlighting their passion for scientific accuracy and visual excellence and promote the fact that they have highly trained scientists and digital artists on staff.
All of this is great news for scientists, students and educators. It is also an example of the types of new industries that are opening up for science graduates and of the way PhDs are using their skills in diverse ways. Does it mark the end of PowerPoint? Not yet. But I think I speak for many academics when I say that it is about time we let go of those cheesy themes, lame fonts, awkward colour combinations, and started embracing new ways to communicate our research in the classroom, conference halls, and beyond.
David Smith is an assistant professor in the biology department at Western University.