Skip to content

When you choose to publish with PLOS, your research makes an impact. Make your work accessible to all, without restrictions, and accelerate scientific discovery with options like preprints and published peer review that make your work more Open.


Science and art find common ground: the importance of storytelling

Readers of PLOS SciComm undoubtedly know that we are strong advocates of communicating science through storytelling. Over the last several months we have featured pieces on narrative communication to forge citizen-scientist relationships, on connecting with audiences through story, and on the use of podcast storytelling to connect research communities. This week we present an exciting look at what can happen when scientists partner with professional storytellers. Our featured author is Sara ElShafie, a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley who has partnered with story artists at Pixar Animation Studios to bring storytelling to scicomm. We hope you’ll enjoy, and once again we remind readers that as with all SciCommPLOS pieces, this one is available for reposting and reprinting as long as the author is acknowledged and a link back to the original piece on our site is provided. Happy reading! –JMO

Early in my PhD program, I realized that I was struggling to explain my research to my family. Whenever we got together, they would swap stories about their lives. But when they asked me about my work, I automatically switched into lecture mode. I could tell that everything I was saying sounded like gibberish to my relatives. It wasn’t that they couldn’t understand my work: it was my failure to make my work relatable to them. I realized that I needed to figure out how to share my work through stories. I figured the best way to do that would be to learn from professional storytellers.

I reached out to Pixar Animation Studios and, to my surprise, I got a response from some interested story artists. We started a collaboration to explore the application of storytelling to science communication. Rather than listing my research results, I worked on sharing my broader story of gaining historical perspective on climate change from the fossil record. I also learned that stories are central to communication in many contexts and many cultures. My collaborators and I began developing story training workshops for scientists. I offered a workshop to the Society for Integrative & Comparative Biology (SICB) for its 2018 Annual Meeting in San Francisco. SICB’s leaders were so keen that they suggested I organize an entire symposium on science storytelling.

I had no idea how to organize a symposium, let alone a symposium on this topic for an audience of scientists. But it seemed like a perfect opportunity to give science communication a central platform at a scientific meeting, and to invite artists to the discussion.

With the help of my colleague Stuart Sumida, a fellow paleontologist with ties to the entertainment industry, I proposed a symposium, Science Through Narrative: Engaging Broad Audienceswith a speaker list evenly split between scientists and artists. The proposal was accepted for the 2018 SICB meeting with much enthusiasm. We spent the next year helping our presenters prepare to bring their perspectives together.

I thought that it would be challenging to find common ground between the scientists and artists we had invited to the symposium. But as Stuart and I worked with the speakers to develop their presentations, we found that they kept converging on a set of core themes.

Sara ElShafie is ready to “cut” the speaker off when his time runs out. Photo courtesy of Helina Chin, UC Museum of Paleontology.

Artist-Scientist collaborations are not new, and should be normalized

Kirk Johnson, Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, encouraged all of the scientists in the room to find artist collaborators. He discussed the legendary friendship between novelist John Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts. He drew parallels to his own journey as a paleontologist working with artist Ray Troll on a book series, Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway. “You need to have art in your science brain,” Johnson said. “I applaud this meeting for bringing them back together.”

Emilie Lorditch, News Director at the American Institute of Physics, compared the goals of the art and science professionals she works with. Scientists aim to inspire your mind, she said, whereas journalists want to show you the person behind the research, and screenwriters want to evoke an emotional response and make you think. Each has a slightly different focus, but all are ultimately trying to accomplish the same thing: make the audience care.

Representatives from the entertainment industry discussed the historic and current role of science in mass media. Symposium co-organizer Stuart Sumida and his colleague Angela Lepito, Art & Story Department Manager at DreamWorks Feature Animation, both highlighted the precedent that Walt Disney set for the industry by bringing scientists to his studio to work with his animators. Sumida and Lepito, along with anatomist and paleontologist Elizabeth Rega, gave many classic and recent examples in which comparative anatomy and biomechanics influenced character design and animation in major films. For instance, Walt Disney brought live deer into his studio as reference for his animators during production of Bambi. More recently, Sumida worked with Lepito and others at DreamWorks Feature Animation to design dragon characters for the film How to Train Your Dragon based on the anatomy of theropod dinosaurs, cats, and birds of prey.

Rick Loverd, Director of The Science & Entertainment Exchange (a program of the National Academy of Sciences), emphasized that Hollywood’s job is not to convey accurate science; it’s to tell great stories. But science improves stories, he said. Most people get information about science and technology from entertainment, so scientists can make a big impact by being present in media and by inspiring the people who create media.

Complexity must be distilled

In my own talk, I explained that science communication is a process of distilling the most salient information from a complex body of work into the most concise and compelling story possible for a given audience. Anna Kipnis, Senior Gameplay Designer at DoubleFine Productions, elaborated on this point by explaining that you can build complexity stepwise in a story. Using examples from popular games like Minecraft, she showed how a game designer can take a player from a few starting instructions to performing complex tasks – just as a scientist can take their audience from a few starting pieces of information to understanding a complex system. This is a more effective way to entice an audience to play the game or to follow your story, rather than frontloading too much information.

“What you lose in accuracy, you gain in power”

This was the thesis statement of Eric Rodenbeck, Founder & Creative Director of Stamen Design, an award-winning data visualization firm in San Francisco. He made the point that exact accuracy can actually diminish the accessibility or appeal of information. The real goal is a representation of the truth that draws people in. Maps, for example, are never exactly accurate, but are useful and aesthetically pleasing. This philosophy should apply to any form of communication, he argued, especially when it comes to science. “We can’t seize up when the press gets something wrong and not communicate at all because of it,” Rodenbeck said. “That will happen anyway, and that’s ok.” Instead of withdrawing, we can engage and set the record straight when necessary.

Elizabeth Rega and Stuart Sumida explored the pursuit of accuracy vs. believability with examples from animated films. For instance, the characters in Robert Zemeckis’ early the motion-capture film Beowulf look realistic, but lack subtle details like retinal movement. The result is animated humans that look creepy and do not seem emotionally authentic. In comparison, Pixar’s The Incredibles features humans that are more caricatured, requiring less precision in anatomical detail or appearance. Animators focused here on using familiar facial expressions and gestures to make the acting believable. As a result, the film was hailed as a milestone in human character animation. Glen McIntosh, Animation Director at Industrial Light & Magic Animation, made a similar point with examples from Jurassic World. Even when animating extinct or imagined animals, he said, there has to be something recognizable from existing animals. “Otherwise, people will think, ‘I’ve never seen an animal do that,’” he said.

These anecdotes are not just entertaining: they offer lessons that extend beyond the realm of animation. Nothing is interesting to an audience unless they can recognize something in it. Whether presenting science or art, anchoring new information to things that people already know is the best way to get people to relate to it and care about it.

Don’t say it, show it

This concept echoed in pretty much every talk in the symposium, especially the talks on visual media. Angela Lepito illustrated this point explicitly with a scene from How to Train Your Dragon, in which the main character bonds with a dragon using only body language. Emilie Lorditch highlighted the shared reliance on visual communication amongst scientists (graphs, charts), journalists (photos, video clips), and screenwriters (cinematic sequences).

Eric Rodenbeck stressed that visualization is not context-free. The visualization alone will be interpreted differently by different people. Rather than compensating by overloading the visuals with details, he recommended using the visual to draw people in and get them asking questions. You can provide context outside of the visual itself (e.g., in the caption or article text) to explain exactly what you are communicating.

Art-Science platforms give voice to all

Many presentations in the symposium highlighted art-science initiatives that emphasize diversity and inclusivity. Sabah Ul-Hasan, Doctoral Candidate in Quantitative & Systems Biology at the University of California, Merced, and Tomás Perez, Artist and Political Science Student at UC Merced, discussed the potential for science outreach to promote social justice and community activism. Ul-Hasan, Perez, and their team founded The Biota Project, a mixed-media science communication and outreach organization that works with underrepresented communities living in overlooked places to understand and appreciate their local nature. They produce online content that highlights symbiotic relationships in nature and society.

DIY initiatives were also prominent in the contributed sessions. Stony Brook University Postdoc M. Eugenia L. Gold self-published her own children’s book, She Found Fossils, about female paleontologists around the world. After the English release, Gold published the book again in Spanish and in Mandarin. Gabriel Santos, Collections Manager at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, is using augmented reality technology to make museum collections compliant with ADA Standards for Accessible Design. Mahima Reddy, a first-year undergraduate at the University of Virginia, started a project that pairs poetry with scientific abstracts and distributes them to the public via decorative birdhouses. Artistic Director Ari Rudenko gave a talk about the dance group he founded, Prehistoric Body Theater, in which he works with colleagues from Indonesia to create dance-theater productions about our shared deep-time history as vertebrates.

All of these projects were led by students or early career professionals. Most of these presenters had never had a platform to share this work at a scientific conference before. I have no doubt that the critical mass of young professionals presenting in this symposium sent an empowering message to our attendees. We made it clear that anyone can make vital contributions to science and public outreach by collaborating, drawing inspiration from what they love, and using all of their creative and intellectual faculties.

How was this received?

The Science Through Narrative symposium and workshop set a new record for symposium attendance at a SICB meeting, with about 300 to 500 attendees in the room at any given time. Several dozen attendees even came from out of town for the symposium. The event also attracted many non-academic attendees, including K-12 educators, marketers, and even park rangers.

In an anonymous follow-up survey, attendees indicated that the symposium had motivated them to be proactive science communicators, to focus on narratives, to use art themselves, and to collaborate with artists in their efforts. One respondent said they found it helpful to learn that “narratives already exist in how we explore systems using science–we just have to reveal them.” One grad student realized that “the difference between accuracy and precision applies for scientific outreach as well as for measurement. You can say something extremely precise and leave the audience with an inaccurate understanding, or you can say something very imprecise and give them a more accurate understanding.”

Several indicated that their perceptions of the role of art and media in science communication had fundamentally changed. “Although I consider myself to be an interdisciplinary thinker, I was surprised by how much more engaged I was by science information accompanied in some way by multimedia and media,” one person commented. “Even within the symposium, the presentations using [film] clips and games and data visualizations and photos and STORIES had me riveted.”

Many indicated that they were planning to apply new approaches to public engagement that they had learned from the symposium. One informal educator said, “I’m thinking of breaking out of my primary lecture-style program… into a game or guided dialogue where volunteers from the audience are assigned parts. That is, moving from ‘telling, not showing’ to ‘showing, not telling.’”

Ultimately, we found much more similarity than dissimilarity in the perspectives of our artist and scientist presenters. Attendees found that synergy valuable and encouraging. I hope that readers of this piece will too. I also hope this proof of concept will encourage scientists to propose science communication programming for their own professional meetings, and to invite artists to participate. We intend to continue the Science Through Narrative initiative through future symposia, but it will take many such initiatives to bridge the scientific community with artists and to advance efforts to engage broad audiences with science.

The author wishes to thank Science Sandbox, an initiative of the Simons Foundation; The Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB); The Walt Disney Family Museum; Science World at TELUS World of Science; Coalition for the Public Understanding of Science; Spacetime Labs; and an anonymous donor for sponsoring the Science Through Narrative symposium at the 2018 SICB Meeting. Sketch notes in the featured image at the top were created by Shayle Matsuda (@wrong_whale).

Edited by Jason Organ, PhD, Indiana University School of Medicine

Want to stay connected with #SciCommPLOS or pitch an idea for a blog post? Tweet us at @SciCommPLOS or email us at

About the Author
  • Sara J. ElShafie 0000-0001-8650-1532

    Sara ElShafie is a global change biologist and science storytelling coach. She collaborates with artists in a wide range of industries to uncover the potential of storytelling to engage broad audiences with complex topics. ElShafie is the Founder and Principal of Science Through Story, LLC, dedicated to helping scientists and science educators connect with audiences through effective storytelling. She consults and runs workshops for groups ranging from graduate students to NASA scientists to theme park executives. She also organized a symposium, Science Through Narrative: Engaging Broad Audiences, with speakers from the scientific community as well as arts and entertainment industries, and curated a resulting published volume of open access papers. ElShafie holds a B.A. in Biological Sciences from the University of Chicago and a M.S. in Earth & Atmospheric Sciences from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. She is completing her PhD in Integrative Biology with the Museum of Paleontology at the University of California, Berkeley. Follow Sara on Twitter: @elshafie_sara

  1. Sara, this is such important and necessary work. I am a storyteller who performs on national and international stages and decided that a show will never be delivered without a story that calls the listeners to examine human impact on our struggling planet. Most recently worked with a number of entomologists, from MA to FL to China, to create Bug Girl, a very human story about the public health crisis that originates in our warming climates effect on vector carrying insects and those they infect. Premiered at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, TN, a very broad population came to understand one small swash of science because it was delivered via the humanity of story. This is important work.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Add your ORCID here. (e.g. 0000-0002-7299-680X)

Related Posts
Back to top