Professor Uwe Freiherr von Lukas, Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics (IGD), Rostock, Germany, initiated the first science soap opera in Germany. He talks to Dr. Vera Koester for ChemViews magazine about the making of the film and why and how a scientist becomes a film producer.
The main character of the science soap Sturm des Wissens (Storm of Knowledge), Nele Wagner, moves to Rostock to start an apprenticeship in hotel management. However, after five episodes, which are full of intrigue, romance, and insights into the science scene, she decides to study physics.
You call Sturm des Wissens a science soap. What is the definition of a science soap for you? Is this an existing term or did you come up with it?
I think we are the first ones to use the term “science soap”. Our idea was to combine a traditional soap opera, with all the typical aspects, such as entertainment, love, drama, and a cliff hanger in every episode, with the background and environment of research and university. As in a typical soap we have several characters and their stories. This makes up an entertaining format, which gives us the possibility to introduce some ideas that we want to bring to our spectators: the information about the science community and the science ecosystem that we have here in Rostock. We especially want to approach young women and give them the possibility to get a first impression of science.
Is this a special topic of concern to you?
We have two concerns. The first is to increase – in the long term – the number of women that we have in computer science and engineering; there we see that the number of women is still too low. At Fraunhofer we have been working on this topic for many years now and we’ve seen that this is a hard job that definitely cannot be solved with just one project. You need a lot of activities to approach young women and give them the opportunity to find their career and to support their career in science.
The second aspect was some kind of marketing for research in the Rostock region. We have a very traditional university from the fifteenth century and we have a lot of research institutes, from Max Planck to Fraunhofer, but nobody outside our region is aware of it. With the film we want to give additional information about what we can offer in Rostock.
We combined these two aspects in what we now call a science soap.
And why a soap opera? Are you a fan of soaps or do you think this is what young people like?
If you want to do marketing it is always a good idea to go beyond traditional ways, to have a fresh idea. I think we are the first ones to use such a format. In addition, we want to show the places and to talk about things that our hoped-for spectators look for. We offer them entertainment, a soap. We use the internet where we hope to find spectators for this format.
There was a lot of research done on how to increase the percentage of women in what are thought of as men’s subjects. One aspect from this – which we’ve adopted in our film – is that it is a good idea to offer role models, to have women as professional researchers in media projects.
The first episode was presented at the University of Rostock and has also been broadcast over the internet already. Do you already have feedback?
Yes, and we’ve got very positive feedback from all ages.
Earlier on we had a small experiment where we presented the first two episodes to thirteen and fourteen year old pupils, in particular girls. They said that the character of Nele is very interesting for them. They really like that she is interested in physics, although they thought that physics is not their favorite subject. However, because of Nele and the film, they became a little bit curious about what is behind physics and what it means to study physics. This was a very positive feedback.
We hope that we can really reach young women and girls because at the age of thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen, they make their decisions about their career. We hope this soap will work as a vehicle, so that they have a look at careers in science and computer science.
I’ve read that the film was developed by students. How did this work?
We started with some kind of a management board for the project where we developed the main issues of what we wanted to reach with our project. Then students could attend a seminar on media research where they got the task to develop the so-called storyline for the soap. The first step was that they visited a lot of labs and research institutes in Rostock to get a better understanding of what is happening there. Then they had a creative process to combine characters, places, and science disciplines. They developed a lot of parallel ideas and then they had some kind of filter mechanism and as a result of a lot of discussion they produced a storyline and formed the basis for the script. A professional script writer used their storyline and then produced the complete script with everything you need to produce a film.
And how did the science come into the plot?
This came through the ideas the students created during their trips to the labs. From the many different ideas on how to promote science, we now agreed on a kind of scientific detective story. A seal is ill and the girls in the film want to find out what is wrong. This motivates them to go from one lab to another and to mix disciplines. So they go into marine biology, physics, microscopy, and to computer science to solve this problem. I think it is a good idea, where we show a lot of different disciplines and we still have an attractive story.
So already during the creation of this film you had nonscientists and scientists connecting with each other to come up with the story.
It was a very interesting process because we had so many people involved from various places: we had the students from marine research, we had the scientists, and we had a lot of creative people from the University of Music and Theatre in Rostock as well as from the Rostocker Schule, which is a network of independent film-makers. All together they put in their expertise and a lot of commitment to shape this science soap. We had various interesting meetings where all those people came together but we also had a very positive mood about the project. Now we are all very happy with the excellent result we’ve achieved together.
Now that you have all this experience in film production do you think you are going to do more films?
A good question! Of course, the idea in our group is to have a second or maybe a third season of our science soap. However, this is not so easy. It was a really hard job to get the budget for the first season, even for this low-budget production. I think we need a strong partner – maybe a commercial or broadcasting company – for this. If we have enough clicks on our episodes on the internet and receive a lot of interest in this kind of story, then there will be a chance, maybe, for a second season.
However, we also have other ideas to proceed in work on the two main issues that I’ve mentioned before. So, the soap is not our only idea – but it could work well.
What was most fascinating during all the experiences of making the film?
If I look back there are two aspects. The first is the high level of commitment of all the partners. We really mixed together a lot of stakeholders that had never worked on any collaboration before, from the creative scene, from research, and a lot of people from companies in Rostock supporting this idea. To see how this crazy idea of a science soap found fertile soil and developed over months was a really good experience.
The second thing that was fascinating for me is the big effort you have to invest into such a media project to get a good result. I thought you need a camera and a good cameraman and then you can produce. Instead you need a huge team and a lot of equipment to get the perfect lighting conditions and to have as good a quality product as you can now see in our soap.
And when you are not working on films what do you do?
I earn my money at Fraunhofer. I am head of a group here called Maritime Graphics. We do applied research in computer sciences, especially visual computing. For example, we have projects together with the shipyards to introduce virtual reality to design processes or with marine biologists to measure mussels or fish.
It is a completely different business but nevertheless also very interesting.
And also very interdisciplinary.
Yes, we as computer scientists typically are scientific service providers for other disciplines. So they come to us with their questions, their applications, and we bring in our expertise to solve their problems.
So, what got you interested in science?
It was many years ago and I think I am what we call an early adopter of computer technology. At school I already had a personal computer, a Commodore C64. I was very curious about how it worked, what all this digital stuff was, hardware, software … Computer science gave me the possibility to combine the logic of mathematics together with the creativity you need for programming new algorithms. And so it was for me the perfect mixture of logic and creativity.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
The complete project would not have been successful without the support from the city of Rostock, the Stifterverand, and a lot of stakeholders. The organizational basis was formed by [Rostock denkt 365°], an association combining all the research institutes, the chambers of commerce, and the city of Rostock. It supports all aspects of science in Rostock, which makes it the perfect organization to push forward our project.
Thank you for the interview.
Uwe von Lukas graduated in computer science from Darmstadt University of Technology, Germany. After having worked at the Computer Graphics Center (ZGDV) and the CAD & Teleservices research department, both Rostock, Germany, he gained his PhD (Dr.-Ing.) in computer science from the University of Rostock. Since 2007 he was Managing Director of the Computer Graphics Center there and in 2009 he joined the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics Research in Rostock to set up the newly founded Competence Centre “Maritime Graphics”. Since 2005 he additionally works as a part-time lecturer at the University of Rostock where he is a member of the interdisciplinary faculty in the department Maritime Systems.
Von Lukas was involved in various national and international research projects and worked as a reviewer for the European Commission.
His current research interests cover Mixed Reality for maritime applications as well as efficient provision of 3D data for virtual environments.
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