In Sharon Shattuck’s latest video, paper cutouts of microscopic organisms flip and twirl in an aquatic ballet. Behind the camera, the choreography was just as intense. “When you have five people, all standing in a tight space and holding wires, you have to be very careful about where you step and how you move,” Shattuck explains. “Animated Life: Seeing the Invisible,” is the third paper animation Shattuck has made with fellow science journalist Flora Lichtman. Their previous subjects were the community of life that develops on dead whales and Charles Darwin’s forgotten rival, A. R. Wallace.
Before her work was picked up by Radiolab and the New York Times, Shattuck was an LSA Program in the Environment student at the University of Michigan. She came to the Biological Station in 2002 to earn a few credits toward her major. Now she says, “I have UMBS to thank for setting me on my current path.”
People she met at the Station encouraged her to take Burt Barnes’ Woody Plants class back in Ann Arbor. She loved the class so much, she changed her concentration to Forest Ecology. From there she went to work as a research assistant at Barro Colorado Island in Panama, and then on to the Field Museum in Chicago. In between, she returned to the Station for several summers as a research assistant and teaching assistant.
When she applied to NYU for journalism school, Shattuck says she knew it would be to focus on science communication. “My understanding of science and statistics helps me to know what to ask when I'm interviewing scientists. I am able to get past the really basic questions and into territory that's more interesting to me, and hopefully to viewers.”
Her curiosity has led to some fascinating stories. “Parasites: A User’s Guide” is a short documentary about helminthic therapy – the use of parasitic worms to treat auto-immune diseases. It was her thesis project for NYU. “Whale Fall (After Life of a Whale)” shows the diversity of life that feeds off and finds protection in the sunken carcasses of dead whales.
The science in these stories is serious. Yet Shattuck and Lichtman present it using whimsical paper puppets. This technique makes the material approachable for non-science audiences. It is also time-consuming. Shattuck, Lichtman and lead puppeteer Emma Wiseman spent thirteen days creating the scenery and creatures for Seeing the Invisible.
Their efforts yield captivating results. “For every project we do, we want to have at least one ‘wow!’ shot,” says Shattuck. In Seeing the Invisible, that moment comes about five minutes in, when the viewer swims through a field of glowing bacteria.
Seeing the Invisible is only the first segment in the “Animated Life” series. The series will highlight moments of scientific discovery. It is being carried by the New York Times Op Docs and Biointeractive, a part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute that provides free science education digital resources.