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Combining Art and Science to Explore the Ultimate Frontier

Living on ships to film what lurks in the depths of the ocean is normal for AAAS Member Caitlin Bailey. In fact, it’s her job. But for much of her time growing up, she was unaware she could combine her two passions: art and science.

“There were all these little signs pointing me toward filmmaking that I didn’t pay attention to,” Bailey says. “When I discovered the Science and Natural History Filmmaking program in Montana, it just clicked: my art and creativity could mesh with my science.” This program at Montana State University (MSU) taught her she could communicate about science through film. However, Bailey admits it’s funny she became a science communicator because speaking was never her strong point, considering she has a speech impediment. So, she learned to “speak” through her camera lens.

Spotted dolphins jumping over ocean waves.
Spotted dolphins. Credit: Caitlin Bailey.

“Because I don’t speak as eloquently as others, I’ve been able to develop video skills,” she says. “Each video that I make has a little part of myself in it, and I’m trying to speak to the audience through the music, stories and visuals.”

In addition to the Science and Natural History Filmmaking program at MSU, Bailey considers AAAS’s Entry Point! program to be a critical experience that helped her develop into a young science filmmaker. The program works to diversify the scientific workforce by recruiting students with disabilities and placing them in summer internships.

After completing her first year of graduate school, Bailey was placed by the Entry Point! program to work at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s space weather department. There, she filmed interviews with specialists and used footage from the NASA Image and Video Library to create informative videos. Although space weather was a foreign concept to her, as someone with a bachelor’s degree in animal biology, she considers her time at NASA to have been a valuable learning experience. “It was a science I didn’t know anything about,” she says, “[but], my experience at NASA gave me the confidence to say ‘okay, I can make films about any area of science.’”

And make films in any area of science, she did. She went on to make films about various scientific topics like materials science, microbiology and, her personal favorite, oceanography.

“[The ocean] is the ultimate frontier,” Bailey fondly remarks. “There are so many wonderful treasures down there and so many things we haven’t discovered yet.”

Formerly, Bailey wanted to be a marine life researcher. And because the sea called her name, she spent part of her third year of graduate school interning aboard the E/V Nautilus in the Gulf of Mexico, where she “fell in love with being at sea and ocean exploration itself.” After obtaining her graduate degree from MSU, a former classmate who worked with the Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration, a non-profit aiming to “help society understand, interpret and protect this critical ocean environment,” connected Bailey with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). She ultimately ended up participating in recent expeditions aboard the Okeanos Explorer, her 10th of which will be complete in July 2019.  

While traveling on the Okeanos Explorer, a typical day for Bailey consists of sending down the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) called Deep Discoverer right after breakfast. This machine can dive 3.7 miles (6,000 kilometers) beneath the ocean's surface and captures high-definition video even in the darkest corners of the ocean floor, thanks to its 20 LED lights. After the Deep Discoverer descends to the bottom of the sea, scientists both onboard the Okeanos Explorer and calling in from the shore narrate in real time the video that the Deep Discoverer records. It is during this time that Bailey and other videographers aboard the ship control the focus, zoom and exposure of the ROV’s camera, clip highlights from the video and oversee the public livestream connection between the ship and the shore. After capturing eight to 10 hours of video, Bailey and the other videographers create stills from the video to help with cataloguing, make a highlight video from the day’s dive and cut out video clips of particularly interesting footage for the NOAA website.  

Close up of firecracker jellyfish.
Firecracker jellyfish.
Credit: Caitlin Bailey.

From her experiences out in the ocean, Bailey gained greater appreciation of all sea life, and she wishes to instill that in others as well. She wants everyone to know that people, no matter if they’re living on the coast or in a landlocked area, are connected to the ocean.

“People forget the things we do up on land upset the ocean floor,” Bailey says. She remembers the amount of trash she has seen on the ocean floor. While exploring the Mariana Trench, the deepest natural trench in the world, located in the western Pacific Ocean, she vividly recalls seeing a Spam container and soda cans trapped within the trench. On another occasion, she saw blinds wrapped around coral that was hundreds of years old and was saddened to see this beautiful organism live through the rest of its days constricted by evidence of human pollution.

“I think that as humans, we tend to think of ourselves as separate from nature. But being at sea, and in nature, and as someone who has always loved animal biology, you become aware of how connected we are to everything on this planet,” she explained. “You don’t have to be at sea to be an ocean explorer. Just discovering a video or animal you’ve never heard of is part of ocean exploration.”

To those interested in merging art and science and especially those who never thought this combination was possible, Bailey says you don’t need to think about these fields as being mutually exclusive — there’s room for both. “The world isn’t about having one interest or job; there’s so much overlap between fields,” she explains.  

Furthermore, Bailey has learned that the saying ‘practice makes perfect’ has truth to it. “Your first film is going to be bad, and I still make films and think I could’ve done better. No one is perfect, and no film or photo is perfect,” she stated.

Even though it’s hard to accept imperfection and frightening to pursue a novel path, Bailey believes that venturing into uncharted waters is all about taking risks and being unafraid to fail, because in failure, we learn.

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McKenzie Prillaman

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