Cast in clay

By Max Helmberger, graduate student, New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, Geneva, New York, USA


Growing up an only child on a dirt road in the Northern Minnesota woods, I spent a lot of time outside, overturning the many thousands of glacier-strewn rocks around my house (at least the ones small enough to move) and gazing in awe at the centipedes, isopods, and invasive European earthworms underneath (which were promptly relocated to our compost bin). My first interest in soil in an academic context came the year after I graduated from high school, when I took a soil science course at my local community college. That class instilled in me a firm conviction that soil is humankind's most important natural resource, and clued me in to the fact that, in soil, there's far more than meets the eye.

After transferring to the University of Minnesota in Duluth to major in Biology, I took an entomology class and worked as a research assistant in an aboveground plant-insect ecology lab. I had always loved insects, arthropods, and invertebrates in general, and I greatly enjoyed the coursework and research experience, but wanted to connect it with my love of soil. I started searching Google Scholar for “soil arthropods”, and a few dozen soil ecology articles later, I was hooked, and I eventually sought out and accepted a M.S. position in the lab of Dr. Kyle Wickings at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, a satellite campus of Cornell University located in Geneva, New York. What I didn't know as I was reading all those papers, was that I would end up reporting all the knowledge I gained from them in a most unusual way.

Clay animation, for those unaware, is a form of stop-motion animation in which clay models are photographed, moved slightly, photographed again, and so on. The pictures are strung together and played in rapid succession to give the appearance of movement. Wallace and Gromit is arguably the most famous example of the medium. When I was 7 years old, my grandmother took me to an hour-long class in clay animation. I made a video of an anthropomorphic flower dancing to some sort of classical music riff. The VHS tape is certainly hiding somewhere in my house. Fast forward to my undergraduate entomology class, and I drew on those old memories for the course's final project to make a clay animation video on the life cycle of the gallmaking fly Eurosta solidaginis, the main study organism of my research advisors’ laboratory. The video was crude by my current standards, but got me a good grade in the class nevertheless.

At Cornell, where I'm currently working on my M.S. in Entomology, I’ve had the opportunity to draw from a unique funding source called the Extension/Outreach assistantship. Instead of working off a grant or being a teaching assistant (something difficult to do when based at a satellite research campus rather than the main university campus), I earned my stipend via progress on a variety of extension and outreach projects of my advisor's and my own devising. When applying for the assistantship and listing my project objectives, my advisor and some of the faculty members on the Extension/Outreach assistantship committee were skeptical until they saw the E. solidaginis video as a proof-of-concept, and in Spring semester of 2017, I was off to the races. To avoid some of the mistakes I made with my previous clay animation, I was very careful with how I went about planning and "filming" the videos. I wrote out all of my narration in advance as well a clear script of what specific actions I would portray. Then, I timed myself reciting the narration for each scene, and so could know in advance how many frames of animation I needed. This, combined with a nice DSLR camera as a Hanukkah present from my parents, would allow for much more cohesive and polished videos than my tale of the gallmaking fly. In the end, I produced three videos, Life Cycle of Entomopathogenic Nematodes, The Soil Food Web, and Ecosystem Services in Agriculture (though the latter includes some functions performed by aboveground organisms). My funding next semester will be from the same Extension/Outreach assistantship, so I plan to produce at least one more video in addition to my other projects, possibly two. From start to finish (writing the script, creating the models, creating the set, taking the photographs, editing the video, and recording the narration), each video took me between 15 and 20 hours to make. Each video consists of 350-400 individual images, with some being repeated here and there. They’ve been received well in the department, and the entomopathogenic nematode video has even been incorporated into several extension talks. The rest of the videos have ben showcased in a few classroom settings, and I am hoping to further expand their reach. I plan to make at least two additional videos in the fall, as I will again be funded through an Extension/Outreach assistantship.

My ultimate goal is that these videos provide an accessible way of communicating soil ecology and biodiversity to lay audiences, especially young ones. Despite being the prototypical "science nerd" growing up, and being an avid consumer of books, documentaries, and Web resources about the natural world, many of the soil animals I read about during my first forays into the primary literature were completely unknown to me. I had no idea there were mites beyond dust mites and the various parasitic taxa, and certainly didn't know there were any mites as cute as a galumnid oribatid. I had never even heard of diplurans, symphylans, pauropods, and some of the other more obscure soil organisms. I knew what a pseudoscorpion was, but didn’t know I could find them in the peat bog less than a mile from my house. And that rubbed me the wrong way. It's hard for young people to learn about the marvels of soil biodiversity, especially on their own. I know that 7 year-old Max would have gotten much more out of these videos than from one about a dancing flower, and he would have started playing around with Tullgren funnels much earlier than junior year of college. As such, if you enjoy my videos, I encourage you to share them however and wherever you like. They are available online as a YouTube playlist.