My guest today is NASA advisor, author, and YouTube videographer Ariel Waldman. Ariel describes what she does as making “massively multiplayer science” — that is, “creating unusual collaborations that infuse serendipity into science and space exploration.” In this episode, we focus on her recent sojourn documenting microscopic life in Antarctica, and how managing information in such a remote, demanding environment calls for self-reliance and thoughtful preparation.Listen to the full conversation
Jorge: Ariel, welcome to the show.
Ariel: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me.
Jorge: I’m very excited to have you here. I want you to introduce yourself to our listeners. I’m going to prompt you by bringing up a phrase that I read in your website. You described what you do is “making massively multiplayer science.” I would love to hear what that’s about.
Ariel: Yeah, I mean for me massively multiplayer science is all about getting people from completely different disciplines and backgrounds together at the same level to collaborate and sort of make more serendipitous awesome stuff in science. So it is taking a bit of a page from massively multiplayer online games where a lot of times if you have a team, but everyone has the same skills, you’re not able to accomplish as much but often times if you have a diverse team of people who all have different skills that they’re all coming in at the same level and sort of equal level playing field, then you can take down a big monster or you know, accomplish interesting tasks and things of that nature. So it’s really just about everyone coming together from different areas to make science better.
Jorge: Can you give us examples of how that manifests in projects were works or things that you’ve done?
Ariel: Yeah, so a little bit about me. So I’m an advisor to the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program that is looking into different ways in which concepts today could be transformative to future space missions, maybe 20 to 40 years down the line.
So it’s kind of investing in sort of the more sci-fi out there ideas that maybe we can’t yet do today but we can begin the research to see if it’s viable. I’m also the global director of Science Hack Day, an event that gets people together from all different backgrounds to see what they can rapidly prototype in one weekend with science and both of those projects are really for me focused on that massively multiplayer science idea. With the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, I specifically try and look for people who are working outside of the space sector. So people in tech or biosciences or neuroscience a bunch of different areas who are doing interesting research that, when applied to a space mission context could be transformative. So I find a lot of the time that people are working on research that is considered very present-day for them, but when it’s applied to something different like space exploration, it can be game-changing. So I’m always keeping an eye out for people who are doing interesting work like that.
With Science Hack Day, it’s really just about getting as many different types of people as you can in the same room and sort of just letting people go and giving them an excuse to play around for a weekend and not necessarily know where ideas are going, but just to sort of work together and come up with stuff whether it’s silly or serious. So that’s really about less directed I guess play with science to see what surprises might emerge the other side.
Jorge: It sounds to me like you’re sort of a cross pollinator, where you’re taking the taking the stuff that is happening in one discipline and bringing it to science, right? And perhaps vice-versa as well. Would that be a fair description?
Ariel: Yeah, absolutely.
Jorge: So I know a lot of your work has been focused on the exploration of space — you were mentioning the work that you’re doing in NASA — and in preparation for for this interview, I was watching some videos of yours that that you’ve published on YouTube. The most recent ones about a project you did in Antarctica. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Ariel: Yeah, so I over the course of becoming a space geek in my life, I got really obsessed with the idea of going to Antarctica because it has so many analogues to space exploration. And I started trying to figure out how I could go to Antarctica, and I learned about a grant called the National Science Foundation Antarctic Artists and Writers grant, which sends artists to go to Antarctica and do interesting work. And since my background is originally going to art school and in graphic design, I thought, “well, maybe this is my path even though I do a lot of space and science work nowadays my background still in art.” So I began speaking with researchers in Antarctica about what would be useful to them, because I wanted to do something that sort of bridge the gap between art and science. And a lot of them talk to me about how even though we send a lot of biologists down there, to tell us what life-forms exist down there to do a lot of DNA sequencing, they rarely take any photos of these creatures. So there’s not actually a large community resource of just knowing what all these microbial, tiny creatures that live in Antarctica look like and move like. There’s maybe a couple of photos often taken, and then they go into a scientific paper and then no one really sees them ever again.
So I thought that that would be an opportunity for me to propose essentially doing microscopy — becoming somewhat of a wildlife photographer at the microbial scale — and going to Antarctica. So I worked for five years, which was way longer than I intended, to get this grant. Applying multiple times and getting better about applying to government grant which is a whole other system in itself.
And I finally got the go-ahead to go last year. And and so I spent five weeks in Antarctica going on top of Glaziers, going underneath the sea ice, sampling the subglacial ponds to look and film these microbes in action in their natural habitat.
Jorge: I saw those videos with my kids and they were totally into them. And I thought that… I felt looking at them like, wow, this is such an awesome way to get kids — and grownups too — but especially kids whose lives are ahead of them just interested in science because you’re making it kind of come alive, right?
Jorge: We read so much about what it’s like to be in Antarctica, but you’re actually like showing all these things. And there’s a there’s a part in the first of the two episodes — I don’t know there are more coming but there are two on on YouTube right now — and there’s a part in the first one that I wanted to like delve into because it can relates to the subject of this show, which is you had just landed in its McMurdo Station. Is that right? You had just landed in McMurdo Station and we’re giving us the tour of the place and showing us around and then you hold up a beeper and you go, “and this is what I use to communicate here.”
Jorge: What was that about?
Ariel: Oh my God. Yeah, so, you know, there’s not many satellites that go that have polar orbits. So that’s sort of where you start with technology and Antarctica. So, very few satellites have polar orbits. They’re more difficult, you need to launch from different sites. So because of that you don’t really have a lot of bandwidth in Antarctica. And McMurdo is the largest station in Antarctica. It’s a station that hosts at its peak in summer. It can host up to a thousand people. So it was a lot of people in a remote location. That doesn’t have a whole lot of satellite coverage. There is satellite coverage, but not a thousand people-worth, really. So they try to manage the bandwidth by essentially not allowing anyone to have internet on their phones. And then only you researchers typically even have access to plug in their computers to an ethernet port. Most other people at McMurdo have to use shared computers or things of that nature. Again all just to try and limit the bandwidth so that it’s even usable and so yeah, they give people landlines and pagers and that’s how you connect with people. So it was really strange for me. You know, it’s like I’m just old enough where I remember when pagers were a thing when I was a kid, but yeah the whole like you have to agree when you’re going to meet up with someone, but if you’re running late you really don’t have a way of telling them unless you page them or something of that nature and… Yeah it just a much slower method of doing everything. And they keep calendars and notes and notebooks with pencils so that they can erase them. And yeah, it was a very different way of organizing information there and I found myself getting a little stressed out about if plans change just how much effort you would have to put into contacting someone so that you just didn’t leave them stranded waiting for you somewhere.
Jorge: I’m really intrigued about this idea of being in a place where communications are so constrained as compared to what they are here, for example in the Bay Area. What was that like and how did it impact your ability to manage your information?
Ariel: Again, as I said, I think there was a lot of things about stress about like if I had a random question knowing that I would have to take a few steps to bug someone. So it made me sort of rethink whenever I wanted to ask someone something. You know, I did have access to a computer that I could plug into an ethernet and I was communicating a lot with other people who had access to computers who can plug-in. So there was definitely more of a concept of working hours and non-working hours because it was just enforced like you’d go back to your dorm — and most people have their dorm don’t have access to an ethernet cable — so that would be it. So you it’s this weird thing where you had to balance contacting people ahead of time enough so that they will actually see the email that you send them. But everyone is so busy that if you were to, you know, contact them a week or two out about something they probably forget it. So so yeah, it just made you a lot more thoughtful about timing and expectations that you couldn’t expect someone to get something instantly. You know, I mean, it really is just going back to a lot of the things that many people had in the 90s where it was just you didn’t have constant all access at all times. For me, I really missed reading the internet at night in bed, which is a terrible habit, but you know, like I would have to download articles on Instapaper and read from there, but I couldn’t really stay up to date with what people were doing and the midterm elections were happening while I was in Antarctica. And so I really was disconnected from a lot of that for better or worse. Because also Twitter is utterly unusable on the bandwidth than Antarctica. So it’s like when even when you’re plugged into an Ethernet, you can do email that’s fine. You’re not allowed to watch any videos at all and Twitter is unusable. So you get a very… You’re sort of like looking at the internet through a tiny pinhole.
Jorge: You said that you were doing — I love this phrase — “wildlife photographer at the microbial scale.”
Jorge: And I’m wondering about how you managed that, the actual information tools for doing that. What was your workflow like?
Ariel: Yeah, I mean well certainly leveling up to that point was a lot of work. Anyone can hop on a microscope fairly easily and began using it to get better images and to be confident about using it so much that that you are confident that you can fix anything that’s broken when you’re in Antarctica took a lot of time. So at first I was self-taught in microscopy. I got a microscope and started just Googling around and figuring out whatever I could figure out. And then I joined the San Francisco Microscopical Society. I always get that wrong. The San Francisco Microscopical Society, so that I could join a community of other people who were into microscopes who could help me learn more information. And then finally it was recommended to me to go into the Merritt College microscopy program to let other people teach me how to use a microscope. And the biggest thing that I got out of that program because at that point, I was already self-taught for a few years, but for me going through that program finally made me confident about microscopes and confident to fix on myself and have some sort of certainty that I knew what I was doing, finally. All of that helps for when I actually deployed and because it turns out that a lot of scientists and researchers and people even that use microscopes really don’t know a whole lot about microscopes. And they don’t need to you know, they just need like a basic image often times and that’s good enough. But a lot of scientists and researchers actually aren’t microscope experts at all or even close. So going to Antarctica meant that if something broke or something went wrong, I was the only person who could fix it, which was definitely terrifying because my whole project was about spending five weeks there using microscopes attaching my cameras to microscopes and filming this stuff if something went wrong, I didn’t have anyone to turn. You I was a team of one and and I knew that even though I was surrounded by very smart people that they might not necessarily know anything about microscopes. So that was all terrifying. And then when it comes to information management of just dealing with microscopes, knowing what parts you need, knowing how to fix them, I don’t know… The microscope world is really really really archaic. They don’t make a lot of information available on the web that includes prices of things. So they still very much operate and on a system where you have to call a representative and eventually that representative will get back to you and then you have to engage in a multi-week discussion into figuring out what parts you need or how much something costs. It’s just so outdated and so frustrating. So pretty much you have to keep spreadsheets of your current knowledge of okay, I think this part fits with this other part and it costs this much. I can’t do the thing that I want to do on this other scope. And again, just no amount of Googling will help you because they’re complex systems and I understand but it’s just that industry is not really been modernized. So you’re really are working with information that comes from talking to people over weeks, which is maddening. I don’t like it at all. But unfortunately as you level up in microscope world, that seems to be how knowledge is managed, through talking to people.
Jorge: You mentioned that you’re attaching your camera to these things and my expectation is that at the end of the five weeks you would have a pretty hefty collection of photographs of all sorts of things. And that’s also information, right? Like this stuff that comes out of the project. I wouldn’t expect that you’d be using just like the stock photos app on the computer, right?
Ariel: Yeah, so I came back with something around 500 videos of microbes and 400 videos of the experience which is the stuff that’s on my YouTube channel. And the way I organized it, I don’t know that it’s the best way but it’s the way that just is most straightforward for me, is a couple of things. So with the microscope photos, going through the Merit microscopy program at that community college, is what really taught me about the importance of keeping a lab notebook, which they still do with paper and pen because often times you’re in shared lab spaces and you’re needing to share microscopes. And having a lab notebook is an easy way for whenever someone sits at a new microscope they can pull up and see what the last person was looking at.
But that’s just really a file naming system so that consists of the file names being converted to date, sample location, the type of microscope you’re using, the objective you’re using, and then finally the description of what microbe you’re looking at? Oh, and I guess also what lighting technique you’re using. So in microscopy, that would be bright field or dark field or fluorescence or things of that nature. So it’s a lot of a file naming system.
With all the experience videos, however, I found that much more daunting to figure out because these are things where I’m not just needing to locate one particular thing. So with the microscope photos it’d be like, “okay, I need to find a tardigrade that’s using a 20x magnification or objective,” and I can go and find that specific one. But with all of the experience videos, so that’s me filming. You know, what McMurdo Station looks like or I’m talking to camera or I’m filming divers going underneath the sea ice. I’m needing to really be able to parse through all of those videos so that I can compile them into YouTube videos. And so the file naming system I developed for that that helped me the most is actually starting with location. So first and foremost, I can think when I’m wanting to pull together a video, you know, where am I wanting videos from? So location. Then I would do category, and category would be one of four things. It would be either an action shot. So someone’s doing something but not talking to camera. A vista shot. So something where it’s just like I’m panning, looking around at you know, an iceberg or something. Talking. So when I’m talking to camera or when someone else is talking the camera. And I think there’s one other I had that I’d have to pull up. But you know, I started organizing them into sort of three or four different categories like that so that I could know what type of footage it is. And then finally I would do the date in the description on those file names. But I found that organizing by location and then type of footage helps me so that when I go into Adobe Premiere and I’m just going like, “okay, I know that in this next bit I need an overview of what everything looks like from this location.” I could quickly find it. I will say though, it took me to go through like 400 videos and watch them all and categorize them all like that, that took me about two months of work. It was no joke. It was a lot of work. And I was getting really depressed because I was like, I’m spending all this time just renaming files. It was a bit ridiculous. But again, sort of that team of one thing is like just the only way out is through.
Jorge: So you did the organization of the videos after you came back from Antarctica, is that the case?
Ariel: So I did basic organization while I was there. So I was at least organizing everything by day and location and I was hoping that that would be enough. So I was keeping track of everything, organizing it, you know, it wasn’t totally the wild west but. But when I came back, I realized well like this is just… Knowing what day and location it was, was not enough information for me to quickly go through in a video editing program because I needed to know which are the things where I’m talking to camera, which are the things where I’m looking out over a landscape, which other things were someone’s diving into something. Oh, yeah that fourth category was transit. So anytime I was like on a plane, on a helicopter, on a snowmobile, what have you, I had that as a separate category as well just to show like the transition from one space to another.
Jorge: If I sounded a little surprised when you said that, is that when looking at the videos they are very professionally produced. And this is not a place where you can go back to get second shots, right?
Ariel: No, yeah.
Jorge: If you miss it, you missed it. And like you were describing this, like yeah, you have the establishing shot, you have the more context-setting, like you’re getting closer, then you have the… It’s like you got the right shots, which makes me think like even if you did the organization after the fact, you must have gone into it with the knowledge that we need to bring the viewers along. So we need to show the airplane kind of about the land in McMurdo Etc.
Ariel: Yeah. I mean I certainly had just a rough idea of how to show everything. So I think and I guess some of that comes from doing video for a couple of years now. And I tried my best to write out different episode ideas before I went there, so that I had an idea of what I wanted to shoot. If I’m being honest, when I got there the idea of trying to like get each episode just was it was it was not very realistic. So I had like an overarching idea of like, I know I want to show these sorts of locations in these things. But anytime I try to actually plan it out, I was like that’s not going to work. I’m going to have to just shoot as much as I can and see what I have on the flip side. And that’s you know, typically I found that usually the best way for me at least to do video is just shoot as much as you can try to talk to camera as much as you can and then see what you have on the other side.
So as I said, I’ve got around 400 videos of the experience, but you’re not going to see all 400 of those videos. Now you’re going to see the ones where I’m like, okay these ones actually work.
Jorge: Yeah. Well, they do work and I want to congratulate you because they’re very effective and I think they accomplish the mission that kind of bringing us along and making us excited about what you were doing there. Thank you for sharing that with us.
We have a few minutes left and I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to get your take on where the exploration of space is going next. I was thinking recently just watching the news that we seem to be in a resurgence of interest in space exploration, what with the commercial entities coming in and the government seems to be putting renewed effort into things like the exploration of the moon. And this is crewed exploration, not just robotic exploration. So I just wanted to get your take on where things are going next.
Ariel: Yeah, I mean you ask different people you’ll get different answers for me, I started to get into space exploration when I randomly got a job at NASA in 2008. And so that was at the very end of the Bush Administration and the party line at that point was, we’re going to go back to the moon and this time to stay. So it’s been very interesting for me now, a little over a decade later, that they’re trying to bring them party-line out again. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but it’s interesting for me now that I’ve been in the industry long enough to see the cyclical sort of nature of it.
And I think certainly things have changed in the last ten years a lot. Ten years ago, NASA was not as good about being open and sharing as much stuff as they do now. They were trying but it was still very much a struggle. So they’ve gotten better on that. And then certainly there’s no longer a monopoly on space exploration because of commercial companies, which is definitely really exciting.
The disappointing part for me is that you would think that because because there’s more commercial companies in this space and because they do not have the same legal requirements as NASA does for maintaining their workforce, you would think that these commercial companies would be more diverse than NASA, but they’re actually less diverse than NASA when you look up at their workforce numbers. So things like that are a bit disappointing to me.
In terms of where I think space is headed, to me one of the most exciting emerging disciplines regardless of human space flight or not is astrobiology, which is all about looking at life here on Earth so that we can better understand how we could look for life in outer space. And one of the things that’s an interesting time to be alive for is that NASA is very good at telling us when other planets or other moons are habitable or not, but they still don’t have the technology to tell us whether or not they’re looking directly at a fish. So if there’s a fish on another moon, that technology doesn’t exist to conclusively say, “yes, this is a fish. This is a living creature. We have detected life. Let’s celebrate.” And there’s so many different ways in which you could be detecting life. You could be doing it through biological methods, like looking for proteins or alien proteins, or you could be doing it through microscopes, or you could be doing it through different sort of radar technologies. A lot of different ways to do that.
So to me, one of the most exciting things I think that is in the future of space exploration, regardless of if we’re going to the moon or Mars or what have you, is that it’s a very creative time for people from different disciplines to be trying to help us figure out if we can detect life in our solar system, or even life on exoplanets — planets around other stars. Because we’re only going to be getting better information about all of those things over our lifetime. So to me, that’s the really exciting bit. But of course, you know, it’s a bit biased because I think astrobiology is like a lot of fun and exciting.
But from the human spaceflight perspective. I was involved in writing a whole report to Congress and NASA and the White House about the future of space exploration out to the 2050s, specifically to human space flight. And you know, I think the biggest takeaway to wrap it up I guess is that it’s not guaranteed in our lifetime that we will be able to — that anyone will be able to — send humans to the surface of Mars. Like actually landing humans on the surface of Mars. It’s not impossible. It could totally happen. But my biggest takeaway was that it’s not guaranteed. It’s not just the moon, but a little bit harder. It’s going to require so much unprecedented collaboration, so much unprecedented information management, and political will and funding, and a different way of doing things that if we do it it will be something to be extremely proud of that it happened in your lifetime. Because it’s not certain. And that makes it both scary, but also exciting, to see if it will actually happen or not in our lifetime.
Jorge: Well, that’s an amazing note to wrap it up on. And I consider your work and important part of the effort to get folks excited in the project. So I want to thank you for the work that you’re doing. And just in case folks are interested in following up with you, where should they go?
Ariel: I guess my YouTube channel would probably be the easiest so you can actually see a lot of the things that we discussed today. So that’s just a youtube.com slash Ariel Waldman.
Jorge: Thank you for being on the show, Ariel. This was a pleasure.
Ariel: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me