Around the Pier: Scripps Student's Fin Whale Film Wins NSF Award


A Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego graduate student who studies fin whales might want to consider a second career in Hollywood after taking first place in a National Science Foundation (NSF) video contest.

Eric Keen, a student with NOAA/Scripps Oceanography marine biologist Jay Barlow, used creative editing and the beauty of British Columbia to wow judges with his short film “Whales in Fjords: Fin whale habitat use & vocalizations in a developing coastal corridor.” The award was announced Dec. 5 at NSF headquarters in Washington, D.C.

In the one-and-a-half-minute long video, Keen describes his role in the whale research conducted by the North Coast Cetacean Society, a nonprofit research center in Hartley Bay, British Columbia, about 630 kilometers (400 miles) north of Vancouver. Specifically, the society and Keen are interested in documenting the fjords off British Columbia, a habitat for several whale species that faces an existential threat by various planned industrial projects, he said.

Keen said he entered the contest hoping that the prize money given to awardees could help support further study in the fjord region.

“The study site is one of the only places on Earth where you can see fin whales from land, but still it’s difficult to give the audience a sense of the animal with just a shot of its dorsal fin,” said Keen.  “Plus, the video had to be under 90 seconds. So I had to try my best to make a creative and interesting video within those constraints.”

Keen, who said that he had had dreams of being a filmmaker before his career path turned toward science, added that he shot the video in between whale surveys and edited the video using the application Final Cut Pro on a computer the society let him use.

“My interests turned to time-lapse photography during college, and I always jump on an excuse to make a movie,” he said, “so when I saw the announcement for this video contest, it seemed a good fit for me.”

The NSF held the contest as part of the 60th anniversary of its Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). GRFP is NSF’s flagship program for graduate students in the science and engineering fields within NSF’s mission. According to an NSF statement, the program has been in operation almost as long as NSF itself, making an investment in students with demonstrated potential for significant achievements in science and engineering.

The contest challenged active Graduate Research Fellows to create 90-second videos showing how their research could help shape the future. Judges included former fellows, NSF staff, and members of the media. From more than 50 entries, the NSF also offered a People’s Choice Award for which 1,975 people voted on their top video. Winners received cash prizes and had their videos shown during the celebration. Besides Keen, winners were:

Second prize and People’s Choice Award – Candy Hwang, Department of Chemistry, University of Southern California: The Secrets of Nitrogenase

Third prize – Erica Staaterman, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, University of Miami: Sonic Reef

– Robert Monroe

Related Image Gallery: Scripps Student's Fin Whale Film Wins NSF Award

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