Q&A with Dr. Claudia Aguirre (from Ted-Ed to Explainer Videos)Claude Harrington 02.17.2016
Back in December, we selected a Ted-Ed Original called The Effects of Sleep Deprivation as one of our PICKS OF THE WEEK. For those unfamiliar with Ted-Ed’s series of original lessons, you can learn more (and check out all kinds of great videos) by visiting here. And when you go there, we highly recommend that you check out The Effects of Sleep Deprivation as well as three other explainer videos by the wonderfully talented Dr. Claudia Aguirre:
In fact, we loved them so much that we spoke with Dr. Claudia (@doctorclaudia) about her work with Ted-Ed, the challenges (and rewards) of making these videos, and why it’s important that messages like these are communicated to the public….
IdeaRocket: First off, can you tell me how long you’ve been researching sleep and sleep deprivation for?
Dr. Claudia: I got into the neuroscience of sleep just a few years ago. My background is in neuroscience and I studied quite a few different things so I tend to research all sorts of different areas because I consult the health and wellness industries. So whatever sort of pops up, or starts percolating in the neuroscience field, I like to tap into that and then go deeper and explain it to the public.
IdeaRocket: Which makes doing Ted-Ed Originals a great fit for you; a way to explain a complex neuroscience topic in a way that the public can easily understand. How did your relationship with Ted begin?
Dr. Claudia: I’ve been working with Ted-Ed for about four years now. It was very new, it had just launched. I actually did one of their first lessons. Back then, they did not have a team of producers and directors. They just had a few educators and a few animators involved. I remember the first one we did, they mailed me a box—like a temporary sound-proof box basically—and they mailed me an iPad and a little tiny microphone. So back then, I did everything. So I scripted the video—which I still do—and I also did the voiceover too. They’ve obviously gotten more funding over the years and now have editors, producers, animation directors and voice-over actors, so it’s a totally different ballgame. And our last three videos have all reached a million YouTube videos in the first week.
IdeaRocket: Wow, that’s incredible! You’ve now done four Ted-Ed Originals, can you talk about how you go about selecting your topics?
Dr. Claudia: Because there are so many videos out there, I always ask myself: how can I write a story that’s going to reach a mass audience because it’s engaging and interesting enough? Not just explaining something for explaining sake, but finding a question or topic that’s on the tip of people’s tongues and no one has really tapped into it yet. For example, the first one I did in this kind of vein: Why is Yawning Contagious?
Dr. Claudia: I feel like everyone, at some point, has wondered that. Why is yawning contagious? But is there an actual answer? So I looked into it from my perspective, which is neuroscience. And while looking at different possible explanations, there was one theory—that it’s basically bringing us closer because of empathy—that I found very fascinating. And so I really spent some more time on that.
IdeaRocket: In a video like that where, as you mentioned, there are alternative theories out there. How do you navigate around that?
Dr. Claudia: On that one, I remember, we went back and forth about the script and how it should be presented. In the end, we decided not to present one theory as necessarily more correct than the other, but just to put all the information and science out there and let the public decide. So I’ve done some topics that are inconclusive because science just is inconclusive.
IdeaRocket: One of your other Ted-Ed Originals is What Makes Tattoos Permanent? Can you tell me how that idea came about?
Dr. Claudia: I’m a mind/body expert, and I work in the skin care industry as well, so that happened because I was just looking at the dermis and became curious. I couldn’t find why tattoos were permanent from a very scientific point of view. There just weren’t any scientific articles out there. I found just one very obscure article out there and then I wrote an article about it for our blog. I thought this is a good idea and I emailed Ted-ED and they loved the idea. It was a really fun one to do.
IdeaRocket: Since we’re in the business of making animated explainer videos here, I am curious to hear what it’s like for you to work with animators on these projects. How does that relationship typically work?
Dr. Claudia: It’s a really fun process for me because I’m not an animator. They usually do a full draft on their own and then I look at the animatic. Or I look at just sketches. And in the meantime, we tend to go back and forth. I leave it up to them to sort of bring these ideas to live however they imagine. So I always find that part really fun, just waiting to see what they do. Oh my god, how are they going to draw this? Because it can be really heady concepts.
IdeaRocket: To your point, these are often heady concepts that you’re dealing with. Since you’ve done a few of these and you are playing such a vital role in shaping the concept as well as scripting the story, what have you learned?
Dr. Claudia: Keep everything really simplified and very concise. We only have a few minutes to get a point across. For all of the scripts that I’ve written, it’s also been important to me that the beginning is very engaging. So for the sleep deprivation lesson, I thought having a human story element to it would be interesting. And a lot of the audience is younger, so I write about teens and students quite a bit.
IdeaRocket: That was one of the things we wrote about, how that video does a great job of leading with examples.
Dr. Claudia: I like to open up these videos with either a story or some sort of historical element. Like with the tattoo lesson: I thought it was interesting to explore the idea of how long tattoos have been around. It’s not like a new fad, you know? It actually goes back to mummies. It took a while to find a reliable source to show me the first evidence of tattoos.
IdeaRocket: In addition to starting strong and utilizing stories and historical information, what have you learned—in terms of scripting–with regards to the animated component?
Dr. Claudia: I always keep the animation in mind and it teaches me to keep it very simple. Very to-the-point, and very figurative. I want to use ideas and concepts that are going to be actually fun to watch. So instead of talking necessarily about scientific terms, I’ll describe the cells I’m talking about as “the guys who gobble up the ink.” That way the animators have a sense of how to think of these as like little monsters.
Dr. Claudia: It’s about making sure that the language is not dry at all. That it’s very figurative, it just makes it so much easier to animate when it’s already very visual language.
IdeaRocket: Since millions and millions of people have now seen your videos, I’d love to hear about some of your favorite reactions.
Dr. Claudia: Why is Yawning Contagious? was probably my favorite for reactions. Because if you look up the comments on YouTube, it’s people saying “Oh my god, I yawned like 17 times while watching this video.” I love the fact that I could evoke a very visceral response with a video because it’s not easy to do. But yawning just sort of lent itself to creating a very emotional reaction. Like people couldn’t help it. It’s not like they wanted to yawn, they just couldn’t help it. And I actually yawned so much when I was writing the script, which was really weird. I couldn’t stop yawning. This is crazy!
IdeaRocket: The last question I have for you goes back to something you talked about earlier: the disconnect between the scientific community and the mainstream audience. You—and I thank you for this—have been working to bridge that gap in a variety of ways, but I’m curious why you believe that gulf exists in the first place.
Dr. Claudia: I think it’s just the nature of how science and science communication works. Most scientists, myself included, are published in journals that are read only by scientists. There’s not a lot of open public access to scientific journals. And even if the were, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that people who are not scientists read the articles because they might draw the wrong conclusion because they don’t realize what went into that study. And that can actually be quite dangerous. So there aren’t enough true scientists out there who are communicating the science. As a result, most of it comes down to journalists; and while some of them are great writers, they aren’t often scientists themselves and the message can easily be lost along the way. Then you get to see those ridiculous headlines: “A study showed that ________.”
IdeaRocket: Right, we’ve seen plenty of those kind of headlines.
Dr. Claudia: I mean, these Ted-Ed lessons aren’t based on one single study, they’re based on decades or more of studies. That’s the difference when I write something too. I’m not putting something out there that’s flimsy in a way where a lot of the articles out there are just based on one-offs. I don’t feel like that helps any one. So with these lessons I like to pick interesting questions and then find all the studies that cover the topic over a long period of time; whether it’s ten, twenty or even fifty years. And I think that the reason why this isn’t always the case is because, like I said, there’s just not a lot of scientists that are doing the actual writing.
To learn more about Dr. Claudia and her recent work, visit www.doctorclaudia.com