What do beavers have to do with wildfire? That was the question Emily Fairfax wanted to answer. Not so much for herself, but for others.
Fairfax, a PhD candidate in geoscience at the University of Colorado Boulder, already knew the answer. She’s been intensively studying it for some time. But she wanted a simple “elevator pitch” answer to tell family, friends and the public when asked about her research.
And she wanted to make it visual.
It’s one thing to say, as she does, “Beaver dams build climate resiliency by slowing water down and storing it in their ponds and the surrounding riparian area. Their wetlands are uniquely resistant to disturbances like droughts and fire! “
It’s another thing to show it. Fairfax decided to make a diorama animation.
Birth of a rodent star
She says it took her less than three hours. “It was 30 minutes to cut all the felt pieces, sew the fire clumps, and attach push-pins to them with hot glue,” she told Edge Effects. She continued:
Each full run-through taking photos for the stop-motion was about 30 minutes and produced about 300 photos. About six seconds per photo, on average. It might seem fast, but there wasn’t much to do between each photo. I just pushed the little beaver toy a bit or put down a felt piece. I photographed four run-throughs before I was happy with the final result. The whole thing was produced on my kitchen table, so getting the lighting right and convincing my cat to stop stealing felt pieces took a bit of trial and error. Finally, I added sound effects to the elevator video. I wanted to give my audience a full cinematic experience and really engage them with my research through this visualization.
The she posted it to Twitter on Feb. 17, and boom: this ecological animation went viral. Within a month it had well over 300,000 views, and had been retweeted 5,000 times. Here it is, all 45 seconds of it:
It’s a great example of presenting scientific information in a way that people can readily understand and enjoy.
See one of her research ponds
Fairfax’s website also provides a link to a wonderful 360-degree image of one of her favorite study areas, a beaver pond in Grand Teton National Park. (I’m beginning to think that websites are becoming almost a requirement for doctoral students these days, given the stiff competition for academic jobs. I have seen lots of them popping up in the sciences, anyway.) The pond, located at Schwabacher’s Landing, is featured in the photo at the top of this post, which is a portion of Fairfax’s 360-degree image.
Ecology, as with all science and scientific knowledge, fits in the gold portion of the singing wilderness spiritual map.