How a Beaver Became a Twitter Star

An image from Emily Fairfax's beaver ecology animation showing that beaver dams help mitigate wildfires.

Most academics I know, myself included, are frequently asked, “So what do you study?” I’ve been asked on rafting trips, on airplanes, at holiday parties, at the grocery store, and so on. I don’t mind the question. I love talking about what I do. I quickly learned that when people ask about my work, they want to know what I study, not how. Now personally, I think my methods are pretty cool. I’m amazed by how much data already exists and how much more data satellites create and beam down to Earth every day. But I can’t ignore the fact that my elevator speech gets a lot better reception when I focus on what questions I’m trying to answer instead of giving an overview of my entire research process.

A picture of Emily Fairfax above a river winding through a canyon.

Emily Fairfax is a geoscientist who studies the ecohydrology of wetlands and riparian areas, particularly those impacted by beavers. Image courtesy of the author, 2019.

I’ve learned that an elevator speech is more of an advertisement than a summary. It should draw people in and leave them wanting more. Once they’ve decided they’re interested in what I do, then I can tell them how I do it. And at that point they seem to actually want to know the methods! Yet no matter how many times I tweak my elevator speech, it’s always felt like something is missing. I’m a visual person. I want to show people what I do, not just tell them. So I made an “elevator video.”

My elevator video needed to be short and punchy—no more than a minute long. What kind of story can you tell in a minute? A very short one. I set out to create a visualization of my research projects based on a single sentence: beaver wetlands persist through wildfire. I needed to craft the story of that sentence carefully—a good story has a beginning, middle, and end. I wanted to emphasize that beavers can dramatically change the landscape, that their ponds and channels create wetlands uniquely resistant to disturbances like wildfire. My audience should be emotionally invested in the beaver and its wetland home, and they should feel relief when the beaver and wetland emerge from the fire unscathed. And did I mention I wanted to keep the whole thing under a minute?

I knew what story I was going to tell with my video, so the next step was choosing a medium. Just talking at the camera or cycling through a bunch of plots and graphs didn’t seem any more exciting than a standard elevator speech. I wanted to tell a visual story. I am admittedly an unskilled sketch artist, so drawing the frames for animation was not going to work for me. I was, however, a Girl Scout growing up, and I spent a non-trivial amount of time doing felt crafts and sewing (in addition to camping, hiking, canoeing, and swimming in creeks of course; my love for the outdoors had to come from somewhere), so making a semi-3D visualization out of felt appealed to me. I was imagining a felt diorama, but in motion. That’s when the idea to do a stop-motion came to me. I had a camera on my phone. I had the felt props. I had a cork-board to use as the base of my video. I had a little toy beaver. That’s all I really needed to make my felt stop-motion idea a reality.

Shooting my elevator video took about two and half hours total from start to finish. It was 30 minutes to cut all the felt pieces, sew the fire clumps, and attach push-pins to them with hot glue. Each full run-through taking photos for the stop-motion was about 30 minutes and produced about 300 photos. About six seconds per photo, on average. It might seem fast, but there wasn’t much to do between each photo. I just pushed the little beaver toy a bit or put down a felt piece. I photographed four run-throughs before I was happy with the final result. The whole thing was produced on my kitchen table, so getting the lighting right and convincing my cat to stop stealing felt pieces took a bit of trial and error. Finally, I added sound effects to the elevator video. I wanted to give my audience a full cinematic experience and really engage them with my research through this visualization.

I finished the video and posted it on my Twitter account. I expected my friends and some of my colleagues to enjoy it, but I was not expecting the video to get as much attention as it did. At first I was a bit overwhelmed by the response, but then I was just happy. And proud. This is what I wanted—hundreds of thousands of people watched my elevator video. Fifteen thousand took the time to “like” it. Five thousand retweeted it to their friends and colleagues. Hundreds commented their questions, appreciation, and interest in my work. I reached a broader audience than I ever had before, and it felt great.

I don’t think my elevator video was so successful because I am an innately “artistic” or “creative” person. Creating compelling data visualizations or telling good science stories aren’t talents that people are either born with or not—they’re skills. Being artistic or creative is something you can learn and practice. I’ve spent many hours researching how to be an effective educator and how to tell compelling stories. I’ve spent even more hours practicing. I’ll try something, show it to my friends and colleagues, and see how they react. If I get positive reactions, I keep doing it. If the reactions are more lukewarm, I reassess and make changes. Science is an iterative process built on theories, experiments, and analysis. Turning your science into art and telling a good story is no different.

Featured image: A still from Emily Fairfax’s “elevator video.” Spoiler alert, the beaver is OK! Fairfax’s animation demonstrates how beaver dams can help limit the spread of wildfires.

Emily Fairfax is a Ph.D. candidate in geoscience at the University of Colorado Boulder. She earned dual undergraduate degrees in chemistry and physics at Carleton College. She engages in interdisciplinary research on the ecohydrology of wetlands and riparian areas, particularly those impacted by beavers. Emily is a strong proponent of data-driven pedagogy. Website. Twitter. Contact.