Jaime Jacobsen: Scientific issues are becoming increasingly intertwined with humanitarian ones

Last year, she won two awards at the international festival Academia Film Olomouc for her film The Last Artifact. This year, Jaime Jacobsen, filmmaker and director of the Centre for Science Communication at Colorado State University, is coming to Olomouc as a member of the festival jury. In this exclusive interview she reveals how and why it is necessary to popularize science, why it is necessary to make documentaries on social justice in times of refugee and climate crisis, and why, in her opinion, it is a pity to separate personal and professional identity.

Read the story in Czech translation here.

As a society, we face and will continue to face for years to come many demanding challenges. “Changing climate and new infectious diseases are really urgent issues that clearly show the incredible challenges faced by scientific communicators; trying to overcome mistrust and misinformation, trying to move through all the noise to connect with people,” says filmmaker and science communicator Jaime Jacobsen. 

Jacobsen believes that a great challenge awaits those who communicate science to a wider and inexpert audience. “We have to think more creatively about how we are connecting with audiences. Scientific research is often communicated through peer review journals which reach a very important audience - the scientific community. In terms of reaching the general public, however, there is a gap.”

You are an Emmy-award winning filmmaker, an Assistant Professor of Journalism and Media Communication and Director of the Centre for Science Communication at Colorado State University, and a science promoter who has travelled the world. An extraordinary list of activities and achievements can be used to describe you and your career. But how would you describe yourself?
I don’t think anyone has asked me this question before (laughter). I would describe myself as I want people to think of me. I am a very motivated and ambitious person who throws herself into things. I put all my passion, energy, and creativity behind them. I am very curious. I like to learn about the world, other cultures, and the natural world. I am also a mother to young children, so I’m really striving to find the balance between advancing the causes I care about, like contributing to my profession and mentoring students, and playing a key role in my family and the upbringing of my children. 

On the subject of passion, it is said that you have a great deal of it for telling stories that feature contemporary issues, particularly in the fields of social justice, human rights, and science. Last year, the Academia Film Olomouc jury presented you with an award for your documentary The Last Artifact, which features a scientific attempt to redefine the kilogram. I am curious to know what led you to filmmaking and the portraying of these particular topics?
When I was young, I always loved arts and science. I was looking for a way to combine these two enterprises, which are often kept separate in our society. I really didn’t know how to do this for a number of years, but one day my stepdad, Dan Bertalan, who is also a filmmaker, took me on a trip to the Old Harbor, Alaska, where he was working with the Old Harbor Native Corporation. He put a camera in my hand and had me interview tribal elders and film wildlife and cultural ceremonies. There, I fell in love with filmmaking as a way of telling stories and connecting people to issues around the world that they might not normally encounter. At the same time, I received encouragement and later mentoring from my stepdad, who told me that I could build a career as a filmmaker. That was something I had never thought of before, so I started looking to further my education. I found a wonderful Master of Fine Arts in Science and Natural History Filmmaking program at Montana State University, where I studied and where I really became trained as a filmmaker who could cover diverse topics that relate to science, culture, and the natural world. 

And how do you choose specific topics over such a wide range of areas?
Sometimes projects come to me through life, through interaction with unique people who have compelling stories. I am often drawn to strong women who have fascinating stories to tell. As I get to know them in my personal life, I discover that a person has something compelling to say about, for example, their experience of leaving Venezuela and immigrating to the US. Other times it’s through more formal opportunities. For example, The Last Artifact was in fact a project funded by federal grant using taxpayers’ dollars. The National Institute for Standards and Technology, which is the United States’ national metrology institute, had as their priority to educate the world on how scientists were working to redefine the international measurement system. Someone had a thought that a documentary would be a good way to share this important change with the public. I applied together with my colleague Ed Watkins, who co-directed and co-produced the film with me, and we ended up getting it. So, it varies by project.

You mention working with different communities around the world. For The Last Artifact, it was the scientific community, which you’ve described as quirky. I want to know which community has impacted you the most and why?
I often have a hard time picking favourites (laughter). Most memorable experiences are hard to choose because every film I have worked on has impacted me in unique ways. I oftentimes look back at projects in holistic ways. The more I travel around the world, the more I get to know people around the world, whether they are from marginalized or scientific communities, the more I see our shared humanity. I see that it doesn’t matter what language we speak, it doesn’t matter what the politics of the country is. There is a beauty and warmth in the connections that can be shared across cultures. I just cling to that. I think fondly about so many experiences in terms of the relationships that I’ve built over the years with unexpected people and at unexpected places. I think that’s one of the most beautiful things about filmmaking: making unique contacts and relationships with people you would normally never interact with.

When building such unique relationships, to portray people authentically it is surely important to understand them and their problems. Maybe I’m wrong, but I would still like to know what you think is the most important part of making documentaries and why?
This is an important question that goes back to the ethics behind community-based participatory research and all the trust and relationship-building that goes into that. You are correct in saying that communities may have different cultural standards by which they operate. So, how does one navigate such difference? One thing that I try to do is talk a lot with the communities and individuals about what they think is important to share from their story. Then I also try to share with them what I find particularly interesting and meaningful, and I try to find where these things intersect. I also brainstorm with people, while identifying the places we might film, for example, about how to represent them, and how to capture them on camera. I really think that dialogue, transparency, and honesty are things that can be applied no matter what context you are working in. 

When making your films, do you have a specific idea or goal regarding what the audience should take away from them?
As a filmmaker, of course I put my own artistic lens and storyteller’s intuition into the story. I often look for shared themes that might come across when interviewing a variety of people. For example, there was a beautiful idea spread out in the interviews for The Last Artifact - that the international system of measurements is a global language that is shared across many cultures and that enables our world to function as we know it. It’s something that the world really came together on and unified behind. To me, that was important to bring out in the story - that we, as humankind, have things we can agree on, things that can improve our lives and our society. I think that in an era of the largest global refugee crisis and a lot of conflict around the globe, it is important to see that we can accomplish beautiful things and we can come together as human beings, especially given the challenges we face. 

In 2019, Richard Dawkins said at AFO that science promotion is hard work, but worth the effort. What do you think of science promotion? As for new ways for how scientists can reach their audience, does it need a redefinition, just like the kilogram?
I think people are thinking about it and trying to find new strategies, especially considering the scientific challenges that we face as a society. Changing climate and new infectious diseases are really urgent issues that clearly show the incredible challenges faced by scientific communicators; trying to overcome mistrust and misinformation, trying to move through all the noise to connect with people. 

I really love what you said in terms of new communication tools that the public uses and spends time with. We have to think more creatively about how we are connecting with audiences. Scientific research is often communicated through peer review journals which reach a very important audience - the scientific community. In terms of reaching the general public, however, there is a gap. But I think an exciting change is slowly coming. A lot of people at the university working in scientific disciplines are coming to me through my work with the Centre for Science Communication. They are asking: How do we use media to share our research? How do we talk to secondary-school or university students? We then look for tools and strategies to achieve this. 

The Centre for Science Communication at Colorado State University has emerged from a new concept that is as yet uncommon at universities. Could you describe the Centre’s activities in a bit more detail?
The Centre is highly interdisciplinary in its nature. I work with six colleagues from Journalism and Media Communication who bring their passions and interests to the matter. One of my challenges as the director is to find a way to push forward on all of these fronts - from providing hands-on training and experiential learning for future generations of science communicators, science filmmakers, and science researchers, to teaching and mentoring. We also really focus on research, on finding new and innovative ways to communicate cutting-edge science to the public, while strongly engaging faculty, students, community members, and professional policymakers in science and science communication. We are also trying to better involve communities, which we want to come to us and share the issues they are struggling with. At the moment, one of the things we are dealing with is how marginalized members of our community are negatively impacted by poor air quality. We are trying to find out how to address this – for example, how we can develop communication campaigns that address the problems of specific communities and meet their needs. It really is an incredible task to be working at a centre that is trying to work in such diverse areas. I’m hoping that in the future we can serve as a leader and a model for other universities around the globe, and that we can form a network to support each other. 

As – logically – the form taken by science communication changes over time, what do you think it needs to do now to be successful and captivating?
I teach documentary production at Colorado State University and one of the things I talk to my students about is identifying who in the audience they want most to communicate with. You really must ask yourself what understanding or knowledge the audience has, what their beliefs and values are, and you must look for ways one can connect with them. So, depending on who that audience is, one can identify different strategies to reach them. For The Last Artifact, we used many visual metaphors - atoms and other elements were represented by toy cars or oranges. This technique may not always entail toys, but something that’s going to represent the broader idea that the audience can connect with because it relates to their lives. I also like to encourage the use of humour. That was a technique we used a lot in The Last Artifact, to make the story fun. We played on words and scientific terminology to have that interplay between images and text, spoken word and music, in a way that brings delight and inspires curiosity.

How do you think the public perceives science documentaries? Do some people perhaps avoid this genre out of fear that they will not understand the topic?
Yes, I think that there is still a specific demographic in the population that chooses to engage with this type of media. Sometimes people watch media for entertainment, so there might be a thought that a documentary won’t be entertaining, or that it will be stressful to watch because it talks about scary issues that we face. So how do we get over some of the fatigue we may face because we have been overrun with imagery regarding the changing climate or the pandemic? As a storyteller, I think about it in distribution terms. When I am creating stories, instead of traditional broadcast pieces to show on television or at film festivals, I may choose shorter pieces for use in the context of community events or in schools. I think it’s important to think about the different places that we can connect people to these stories, encourage interaction and engagement, and help to combat the fear and fatigue I mentioned.

We have touched on climate change and the pandemic several times in our interview. I'm wondering if there's a topic you'd like to work on? Something that has long interested and tempted you as a possible subject for a film, for example?
I think my current project with displaced Venezuelan families is what I've been dreaming of for a while. I've been wanting to find a way to challenge how we view migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, and to give voice to people that have intersected my life purpose. I'm also interested in how this issue relates to the changing climate, because a lot of migration is tied to this. The scientific issues are becoming increasingly intertwined with humanitarian ones. That’s something I'd like to develop more in the future as a scientific storyteller and as a storyteller who focuses on humanitarian topics.

Speaking of your work on the refugee crisis in Venezuela, I cannot help but ask how the situation in Ukraine resonates with you as a filmmaker closely involved with refugees. Is there a way a documentary can help at such moments?
Refugee and migration studies and their intersection with media studies, in addition to science communication, is my other area of research. It is a topic I have experienced across cultures in different regions of the world. I taught for three years at Notre Dame University outside of Beirut, Lebanon, where I really experienced the Syrian refugee crisis first-hand. Upon my return to the US, I met some displaced Venezuelan families who had come to the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, where I was living at the time. I felt moved to foster connections across cultures and to further understanding between host communities and newcomers. So I began to grapple as a storyteller with the ethical response to such crises and to refugees who are coming to our communities.

I asked myself how we can facilitate understanding, empathy, and compassion, without necessarily crafting stories that victimize those impacted by the crisis, and how we can tell these poignant and tragic narratives in a way that also shows the empowerment of some of the individuals involved. It's a very difficult thing to do, but we need more stories that showcase peoples’ voices impacted by displacement within the documentary medium. I've done some studies and reading on this and traditionally women's voices are often missing from the narrative. So, as filmmakers and storytellers, we need to consider how we can hear from the overlooked people about what they themselves are experiencing. We need to think how we can work with them to share their stories in the way they would like to be represented. It's another area of questioning of mine that is quite thought-provoking, and it still needs a lot of investigation and answers to unfold.

I wish to follow up on the issue of under-representation of women that you just mentioned. According to US statistics, only 20–30% women work in the TV and film industry, a percentage that is very similar to the one in science. What do you think of this situation, and how do you deal with it in your everyday work?
In my work, I’ve had to be very intentional and think about how diversity is represented on screen. One thing that I find quite inspiring is that I see a lot of female students in my classes who are studying media production, documentary, and science communication. I’ve had the chance to work with many young, up-and-coming female researchers on campus, so I wonder how this balance will evolve over the next generations. I see hope, because young women are boldly entering these fields and already making a difference. 

That being said, if you look at it from a generational point of view, and this is something we ran into when filming The Last Artifact, a lot of senior scientists were the first considered for an interview because they were the most knowledgeable, they were in the position to communicate the science to the public through their institutions, or they were senior in their career. Unsurprisingly, they were often male and white. We saw more gender, ethnic and racial diversity in the younger generations of scientists, but these individuals were not in positions with as much prestige or seniority associated with them. But this awareness led us to a careful effort to profile people that represent different stages of career. We wanted the topic introduced by both late-career and early-career researchers, to capture new and up-and-coming voices. We’ve found more women operating in that space, but we had to give them the opportunity to contribute, to speak and to participate.

A topic that has resonated a lot in science in recent years is harmonization of work and family life. At the beginning of this interview, you mentioned that as a mother of young children, you, too, are dealing with this issue. What do you think could help make the task easier?
I think it goes without saying that the United States has a long way to go in this realm. For a long time, work has been completely separated from family life. I still hear from my female colleagues that they don't want to talk about their identity as mothers because they feel it might jeopardize their standing as researchers or science communicators, and that they might not be taken seriously. It reflects the sad state of our society that this is still a concern for some women. I think it is important for women like me to talk to my female students about my experiences, not only as a filmmaker and a professor, but also as a mother. To share my challenges and show that career and motherhood can live together and support each other. Personal identity doesn’t have to be hidden; it can be part of your professional identity and fuel it. We need to hear women talk about these experiences to normalize them. Hopefully, it will move the needle a little bit for future generations, so they won't face as many challenges in this realm.

I was intrigued by your idea that personal identity, in your case the identity of woman and mother, can move professional identity forward. In what other way is personal identity beneficial in your profession?
As a woman, I might have easier access to the stories of other women that aren't being told, and which we need to hear more of. I think that the identity we have as mothers can help us with this work. One of my mentors, the sociologist Leah Schmalzbauer, has been working with Mexican immigrants for some time. I remember when I was in film school, she had gone into these communities and as a white female academic of prestige and power was having trouble connecting with some of the Mexican immigrants that she was trying to interview for her book, The Last Best Place. It was only when she started bringing her children along that she really began connecting with these women. Once they began to see her as a fellow mother, they were able to connect and share their stories and experiences as women and immigrants. So, as a filmmaker, I've really tried to embrace my identity as a woman and as a mother, because it enables me to connect with some of the people that I'm collaborating with. I think it's quite beautiful, something that I don't shy away from and that I find meaningful and purposeful.