Cell biology research relies heavily on all types of microscopy to capture – for visualization and analysis – cell structures, cell movements and cell-cell interactions. For the eighth consecutive year, the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) has supported interested cell biology labs in the creation of video projects describing their work for interpretive and educational value.
The Celldance video program provides participating labs financial support to develop video stories of their cell motility research, in addition to post-production assistance for sound and editing services. PLOS supports this ASCB Public Information Committee program that helps showcase the value of basic research, aids in communicating complex scientific concepts to the public and provides scientists a unique opportunity to fine-tune their communication skills.
This year, two labs working in collaboration and a third lab developed Celldance videos for presentation at the joint ASCB|EMBO 2017 Annual Meeting. Dyche Mullins’ lab at the University of California, San Francisco, in collaboration with the Lillian Fritz-Laylin lab at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, created a video honoring foundational research on actomyosin and muscle movement by Albert Szent-Gyorgyi and describing how the molecules that constitute the cell’s skeleton, or cytoskeleton, influence the way a cell moves through both wide open and narrow matrices. The Guillaume Duménil lab at the Institut Pasteur created a video that emphasizes the value of cohesive basic and clinical research programs and describes the group’s studies on infection caused by the Gram-negative bacterium Neisseria meningitidis, responsible for meningitis and sepsis.
One of the reasons the Mullins lab submitted work to the ASCB Celldance contest was to be able to convey the fundamental importance of molecular and cellular motion to a general audience. Mullins appreciates that fundamental problems in cell biology are often challenging to explain to non-specialists. Article types such as PLOS Research Matters, for both PLOS Pathogens and PLOS Biology, can help in this regard, by enhancing public understanding of science and the benefits of basic research to public health, society, life, and the environment. In addition, “A short film can explain concepts that are extremely difficult to convey in a brief elevator conversation or even a long lecture,” says Mullins.
Paring down several initial ideas the group wanted to convey was key to creating a coherent narrative. The team decided to begin with the importance of molecular and cellular motion, then to introduce the idea that “this is a universal feature of life, even microscopic life living in ponds,” says Mullins. Once the images were in place, the team experimented with audio voice-overs but eventually settled on captions to guide the viewer through the story. “It’s like an old-fashioned silent movie,” he says.
Sometimes even scientists need help understanding what they see under the microscope. Fascinating 3D lattice light sheet movies of crawling cells from the Fritz-Laylin lab were also motivation for wanting to participate in Celldance. “There is so much information in these movies that we had a hard time understanding what we were seeing,” says Mullins. By enlisting the help of visualization experts, the research teams could “suddenly see a wealth of new details. We were no longer seeing cells as ghostly apparitions, barely discernible at the business end of a microscope, but as real, three-dimensional beasts. We wanted to share this experience with a wider audience.”
Says Duménil of his Celldance experience, “From a scientific point of view, I find it useful to see an infection as a story that starts with the encounter of the pathogen and its host, the story develops with the different stages of the infection, cellular barriers are crossed, cells invaded, organs infected and the outcome can be happy or sad.” For Duménil, the opportunity was not only about explaining science to the public in an accessible format. It was also, he says, “an opportunity to show the people who do the actual research and our lab environment at the Institut Pasteur.” For more on the work of the Duménil lab and their video, see the partner Celldance blog on Speaking of Medicine (text and link updated 1/2/2018).