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Odors to Opioids: An Award Winner Explores Video Science Journalism

Earl Lane and Nsikan Akpan
Earl Lane and Nsikan Akpan, a AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award winner, discuss video science journalism at the July 10 AAAS Colloquium. | Chip Kuhn

Video science journalism can simultaneously explain difficult technical concepts, illuminate the impacts of scientific advances and make the audience laugh, as demonstrated by the work of Nsikan Akpan, digital science producer at PBS NewsHour, co-creator of the program’s ScienceScope digital series and a AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award winner.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science Colloquium lecture series held July 10 at AAAS headquarters featured Akpan in conversation with Earl Lane, executive director of the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards. Since 1945, the awards have recognized reporting on science by professional journalists, with independent judging committees selecting works based on accuracy, originality and value in fostering a greater public understanding of science and its impacts.

Along with ScienceScope co-creator Matthew Ehrichs, Akpan won the 2016 Silver Award in the television spot news/feature reporting category for their video “What a smell looks like.”

The judges were intrigued by Akpan and Ehrichs’ “unconventional” approach to exploring the science of scents, Lane said. Take, for instance, the opening scene, in which neon green tendrils waft over Akpan’s head. “It looks like a space alien puked,” a bewildered Akpan observes in the video.

The piece might be fast-paced and light-hearted, but Akpan does not skimp on the science. Those tendrils are the visualization of an odor, as captured in the laboratory of engineer and fluid mechanist John Crimaldi at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Akpan observed experiments to understand how odors move, revealing that our own exhalations can change the structure of an odor. Such research could ultimately teach a robot to smell, allowing them to replace animals tasked with sniffing out explosives or missing people, Akpan reports.

“What a smell looks like” was Akpan’s first-ever video for ScienceScope. He started his career as a scientist, but while studying pathobiology and molecular medicine at Columbia University, he realized he did not want to do research forever. After completing his Ph.D., he delved into science communications and journalism, launching his own blog, beginning a freelance career and earning a master’s degree in science communication at University of California, Santa Cruz. He held internships at Science, Science News and NPR before joining PBS NewsHour in 2015.

Akpan and Lane screened and discussed several ScienceScope videos, which seek to answer a wide range of questions: whether solar energy can help power Puerto Rico’s post-hurricane recovery, whether redheads feel more pain, why opioids are so addictive, and “one of the tough questions that science has faced for years: how to get the ketchup out of the bottle,” Lane joked.

Through his reporting, Akpan makes clear that it’s not just about condiments. Akpan explores a material called LiquiGlide, which coats the inside of a ketchup bottle to lessen the friction between the solid container and the liquid inside. He visits the LiquiGlide lab, where researchers are exploring a number of other applications, from deicing airplanes to improving pesticides.

While his videos differ in both tone and subject matter – some are entertaining “explainers” that seek to answer one question with scientific evidence or highlight basic research, while others take a more serious look at a topic in the news through a scientific lens – Akpan recognized a common thread that runs throughout his work: each ScienceScope entry starts with a very simple idea to hook the audience. Finding ideas is more of a mentality than a method, said Akpan, who strives to look for ideas where others are not looking. He makes an effort to read every pitch he receives – he never knows what he might find.

To flesh out an idea, he then gathers as much detail as he can about one or two very technical topics. “I will always want to go into the lab and talk to researchers,” Akpan said.

Akpan also said he strives to explore the implications of a scientific topic and understand how it affects people. For the opioid video, this meant interviewing a former opioid user about his experiences to complement the scientific explanation of how opioids affect the brain. Regardless of the story, there is always an opportunity to “tack on some realness,” Akpan said.