Graduate  students in the Current Topics in Quantitative and Systems Biology  course, QSB 290, are getting the opportunity to create public service announcements (PSAs) with help from a former scientist turned acclaimed filmmaker.
Students will work with former evolutionary ecologist Randy Olson during the projects’ final stages. Olson will be on campus the week of May 4 for three days as the students finish filming and editing their PSAs. The finished PSAs will be one minute in duration.
The project culminates on Wednesday, May 6, with a public viewing and panel discussion in the Lakireddy Auditorium at 6 p.m. The event also includes a screening of Olson’s 2006 documentary, “Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus.” The event is free and open to the public.
School of Natural Sciences  assistant professors Michael Dawson  and Marcos García-Ojeda , who teach the course, anticipate that Olson will help students create scientifically literate public service announcements that affect the San Joaquin Valley region and are of global significance.
Students in the class worked in four multi-disciplinary groups. Each group came up with its topic, researched it from diverse scientific angles and is responsible for creating their PSA. Graduate students Katie Harris, Andres Martinez, Harshani Peiris and Joseph Heras, representing each of the teams, said the PSAs will address water shortages in the Central Valley, air quality in the greater Merced area, ecotoxicity and chlamydia.
Each PSA targets its message to a specific audience. The water PSA, for example, is aimed at the greater community. “We’ll talk about the problem, access and solutions,” said Harris.
Martinez’s group decided to address air quality in the greater Merced County area and how it relates to asthma.
“Our target audience is parents,” he said. “We want to present the problem, provide some solutions and address prevention through education.”
Ecotoxicity, the subject of the third PSA, studies how chemicals affect the environment and the organisms living in it, said Peiris. As part of their research, students interviewed community members and farmers about chemicals they use daily and weekly.
The fourth PSA addresses chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control, chlamydia is the most frequently reported bacterial sexually transmitted disease in the United States. It is sometimes called a silent disease because about three-quarters of infected women and roughly half of infected men display no symptoms. In women, untreated infection can cause pelvic inflammatory disease and result in permanent damage to the reproductive system.
While their subject matter is serious, Heras’ group will inject a bit of humor into their PSA – Heras’ will don a costume to portray the bacterial that causes chlamydia -- as part of their strategy to engage their target audience of older teens and young adults.
While the PSA project is a big undertaking, the student scientists said they are excited about it. Plus, it gives them the opportunity to use their creativity. “We’re usually writing complicated reports that a lot of people don’t understand,” Harris said.
The PSAs are a way to present scientific information to the general public in a message that is accessible, which is one of the hallmarks of Olson’s film work.
Olson earned his Ph.D. in biology from Harvard University in 1984 and was a professor of marine biology at the University of New Hampshire before he changed careers. In the mid-1990s, he moved to Los Angeles to entered film school at the University of Southern California. Olson has since written and directed a host of short films and documentaries. His 2006 feature documentary, “Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus.,” was screened at the Tribeca and Telluride film festivals.
Reviewers have described “Flock of Dodos" as a humorous examination of the debate between evolutionists and intelligent design proponents who argue that life is too complex to be explained by science alone.
Martinez and his fellow classmates said creating the PSAs is an opportunity to get important information to the public. “We want to let the community know that UC Merced is here as a resource.”