UW News

March 4, 2016

UW video on clingfish takes top prize at Ocean 180 competition

UW News

Sometimes all it takes is artistic drive, a beneficial collaboration and one charismatic critter to take home gold.

A University of Washington team won first place in a science communication video contest that culminated during the recent Ocean Sciences Meeting. The entries were critiqued and evaluated beforehand by more than 37,000 middle-school student judges hailing from 1,600 classrooms in 17 different countries. The students chose the winning videos based on their educational value and creativity.

For the UW team — Adam Summers, a professor of biology and of aquatic and fishery sciences based at Friday Harbor Laboratories, Ian Stevens, a 2015 English graduate, and Zack Bivins, a current English major — the win celebrates both a standout video, and an unlikely collaboration.

The undergraduates met during a fall 2014 course taught by English professor Richard Kenney at the UW’s Friday Harbor Laboratories. The students were reading “Moby Dick” in Kenney’s literature course while also taking a marine biology class at the facility on San Juan Island. Students from the sciences and humanities interacted in both courses, creating a cross-pollination dynamic that helped students from both disciplines, Stevens said.

“Students in the sciences who have fascinating fields of study meet English majors who have the ability to tell stories. You bring them together in a way that allows them to collaborate and feed off the energy of people in their fields,” he said. “It was the synthesis of what the Friday Harbor Labs program is all about.”

Stevens and Bivins made a 10-minute video about a sperm whale, inspired by reading “Moby Dick,” that planted the seed for further collaboration. They also met Summers, who encouraged them to submit an entry in the upcoming Ocean 180 Video Challenge.

The competition asks ocean scientists to summarize a recent research paper and explain the significance and impact of its findings to non-scientists and students using a three-minute video. So the UW team did just that — Stevens and Bivins pored over Summers’ recent papers, choosing a 2014 study on the Northern clingfish, a finger-sized critter that uses suction forces to hold up to 150 times its own body weight.

Northern clingfish.

Northern clingfish.Petra Ditsche/University of Washington

Clingfish are also quite charismatic and cute, sure to charm an audience, they reasoned.

The students started making trips up to Friday Harbor Laboratories, where they filmed clingfish in Summers’ lab as well as the surrounding waters of Puget Sound. They used simple graphics and language combined with footage of the clingfish and its habitat to explain how the species is able to stick to rough and smooth surfaces — and how its biomechanics might help inform the design of surgical devices and instruments and tags to track whales in the ocean.

The project was entirely optional and extracurricular, a fact that impresses their professors and, in their own eyes, adds validity to the video.

“This is the intellectual life at its magnesium heat. They were doing it for fun,” Kenney said. “That’s how you win, it starts with excitement and passion.”

“It turned out for the best because it was essentially a passion project,” Bivins added.

The duo is forming a video production company and will likely continue making films that explain complicated science in an easy-to-digest, visual format. They also hope to enter the Ocean 180 contest again, perhaps next time in the professional category.

Their winning video about the clingfish will remain on YouTube and on the Ocean 180 website.

“It is pretty cool for a couple of UW English majors to waltz into a national science outreach film competition and take top honors,” Summers said. “I think it points to the excellent training these students received on campus and also their ability to exploit the intellectual hothouse of Friday Harbor Labs.”