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The making of “Persistence & Vision”: an adventure in both

STEAM Assistant Mahalia Lepage On The Upside of Taking Risks

September 1, 2017 — 

When BSc student Mahalia Lepage (Genetics, ‘16) was asked by STEAM Coordinator Seema Goel to create an animated video about undergrad research, she knew she had her work cut out for her. It wasn’t that Lepage lacked an interest in the subject; it’s that she had never actually done any animation before.

“I liked the prospect of a project about undergraduate research because I think it really [shows that] risk-taking and doing things that haven’t yet been done are what lead to the best work in both cases. Undergraduate researchers are people who…are making their first big leap in terms of risk-taking in science: they’re going from courses where they’re studying things others have studied quite well, to taking on a big problem that has not been solved yet, and figuring out how to work within the unknown.”

Beginning in Fall 2016, Lepage and fellow STEAM assistants Jeremiah Yarmie and Kira Koop recorded Math Bio student Ryan Sherbo describing the process of math modelling, a process which uses equations that describe change in order to predict long-term effects of different systems. The group then sorted through the footage, culling what they felt were the best two minutes’ worth.

Uncertain of where to start, Lepage spoke to Alison Davis, a Winnipeg-based filmmaker, who advised that she storyboard the entire video. Lepage confesses that she should have done more storyboarding, since she ended up doing some wrangling to get her animations to fit with Sherbo’s footage. Her hand-drawn illustrations were painstakingly done with chalk, a choice.

Lepage felt was a natural fit given the inherently math-like associations of the medium, as well as a way to emphasize the human behind the science. These illustrations were then animated to accompany Sherbo’s commentary, with a view to making the content more accessible to viewers.

STEAM Team. From L to R: Mahalia Lepage, Jeremiah Yarmie, Seema Goel, and Kira Koop. Photo by: Kira Koop.

Authenticity was also crucial to Lepage, so she insisted on using Sherbo’s own calculations.

“I really didn’t want it to be something that was just made up… If an actual mathematician looked at the video, I wanted them not to feel like it was all a bunch of fake, made-up, unrelated numbers.”

When it came to the video’s title, Lepage credits Math Head Steve Kirkland, who has a way with wordplay.

“The reason the title works so well for this project is ‘persistence of vision’ [refers to] what allows [our brains] to convert separate images and make them look like they’re flowing in sequence, like they’re moving, … [while] persistence and vision are both qualities that a scientist uses for research.”

Goel was also thrilled with Lepage’s creation, saying: “Mahalia draws in a way that reveals her experience as a scientist herself…. [and] she never sees the setbacks as failures… just places to learn.

“This is part of the connection between art and science – an attitude where failure is seen as part of the road to success, and only by taking chances do we challenge our abilities and what we know to produce new things and new ideas.”

Despite the challenges involved, Lepage is pleased with the finished video, and feels that taking the risk was definitely worth it.

“I think that sometimes it’s good to jump into a project without knowing all the details of how that’s going to work…. [I]f I knew that [this project] was going to take as long as it did, for example, I would have been a little more daunted by the project…Because once you’re already in it, you figure out what to do to finish it… You have more courage to do what needs to be done if you’re already in it.”

Already that risk is paying off. Persistence & Vision has earned a coveted spot, one of a select group from over 900 submissions, at the 10th annual Imagine Science Film Festival, in New York. Founded at Rockefeller University, Imagine Science Films is now a 501(c)(3) that produces annual science film festivals in New York, Paris, and Abu Dhabi, and at satellite events worldwide.

The festival will run for eight days from Friday, October 13 to Friday, October 20, with film programs, live performances, panel discussions, VR demos, and other events taking place at The New School, Cooper Union, The American Museum of Natural History, the New York Hall of Science, the Rubin Museum, Made in NY Media Center, Bowery Poetry Club, Spectacle Theater, BioBase Harlem, Cobble Hill Cinemas, and The Rockefeller University.

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