The matrix reloaded

Complex ideas in ecology made simple

Last year I published a really exciting paper on the matrix in fragmented landscapes (Driscoll et al., 2013). The matrix is the land that patches of native vegetation are embedded in. More often than not it’s cropland or grazing lands or plantation forests. My paper brought together a number of ideas about the matrix and outlines an overarching conceptual model of the conservation value of the matrix. And, if we’re serious about conservation in production country, this type of understanding is critical to our capacity to saving biodiversity in these landscapes.

But here’s the challenge. I think this is both an interesting and an exciting topic but I know that most people will never read this journal paper. How do I endeavour to spread the information and the value of this research? It’s a challenge that confronts all EDG researchers when they  publish their science. How do we get anyone beyond our small circle of fellow specialists to engage with our science?

Most of the time I don’t have the capacity to do much beyond the research itself but this time I thought I’d try something different. This was a special paper, in my opinion; it deserved the extra effort. This time I decided to make a movie about the science in the article, about the matrix in fragmented landscapes! And (light bulb moment) my opening ‘hook’ would be a connection with the sci-fi thriller The Matrix (which has nothing to do with fragmented landscapes but does involve guns, computers and fights, and everyone has seen it).

So, I sat down and nutted out a simple script, dug out my camera then drew my characters in Texta and cut them out. I took over the family dining table for two weekends (and every evening between) of intense focused activity (to the complete exclusion of everything else, except biological requirements), while I painstakingly filmed a short stop-frame animation video. It took heaps longer than I expected (my family weren’t too happy about the loss of the dining table) and it’s rough and ready edges are there for everyone to see. For all that, I’m quite proud of it it (see embedded video ‘The matrix in ecology’).

Though it took time (all of my after work hours for several weeks) it was fun to do, it forced me to tell the story of my science in a simple, engaging and bare-bones fashion, and it made me put myself in the shoes of those outside of my scientific circle.

That was several months ago. I’m happy to report that my first foray into cinematography has had pleasing outcomes. My colleagues thought The Matrix in Ecology (the title of my three-and-half-minute epic) was excellent and that I didn’t trivialise my science, so my reputation is still intact. Somewhere in the order of three thousand people have taken the time to view the video, most of whom I wouldn’t mind betting would know little about the matrix in agricultural landscapes, so I think as an exercise in communicating to a broader audience it’s been a big success. And, the positive feedback has led to me making another video on an up-and-coming paper (even bigger than the matrix, but I can’t say anything more about this production at the moment, it’s still hush hush).

But the impact could even be greater. Like a small snowball rolling down a hill, the idea of translating our conservation science into fun, engaging short videos is gathering size and momentum. The success of my matrix video led to the staging of the Great EDG Video Competition (run by me with several EDG colleagues) which came to a conclusion a couple of months ago.

“How do I endeavour to spread the information and the value of this journal article?”

EDG researchers from around Australia put together six short videos and the results are fantastic. Three of them use stop-frame animation, while the other three use more traditional video techniques. All of them attempt to convey complex ecological ideas through simple stories, fun images and, in some cases, catchy music.

Well done contestants, you are a credit to our profession. What’s more, your efforts this year will hopefully see this event flower and grow in the years to come. I encourage everyone to take a few moments to see what they have achieved. I guarantee you’ll learn something. I would also bet that viewing these efforts will leave you smiling. With luck they may also leave you infected with the bug of storytelling and video making, and who knows where that might lead.

More info: Don Driscoll

Driscoll DA, SC Banks, PS Barton, DB Lindemayer, & AL Smith (2013). Conceptual domain of the matrix in fragmented landscapes. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 10.1016/j.tree.2013.06.010. Download a pre-print: