Science in real time

Inner Space Center

The ISC Production Control Room crew, left to right: Andrea Gingras ’01, producer; Ben Woods ’22, intern/editor; Alex DeCiccio ’10, director; Jessica Kaelblein ’18, switcher. Not pictured: Derek Sutcliffe ’11, engineer; Ryan Campos, audio engineer.

Photo credit: Nora Lewis

At the University of Rhode Island, the one-of-a-kind, internationally known Inner Space Center’s production control room is translating science directly from the field into relatable, real-time stories. 

The center links scientists on sea-faring research vessels with other scientists, the media, and schools using telepresence, the ability to interact with what’s going on in one place while you’re somewhere else.

The brainchild of URI professor of Oceanography and legendary ocean explorer Robert Ballard, the Inner Space Center is directed by marine research scientist Dwight Coleman. Coleman and his team are the multi-talented, multi-tasking core crew of the center’s production control room.

The production control room is the heart of the operation, turning all the incoming and outgoing feeds into seamless broadcasts. “Live production is like a puzzle,” says producer Andrea Gingras ’01. “I try to put the pieces together before we even start so that when we say, ‘That’s a wrap,’ the audience sees the full picture.”

In October 2019, the Center used ship-to-shore telepresence in a pilot project funded by the National Science Foundation. The production control room crew connected scientists on the R/V Laurence M. Gould in the Western Antarctic with classrooms around the country, giving students an opportunity to interact in real time with scientists conducting critical research.

Does this sound as easy as livestream? It’s not. It takes a lot of equipment and a multitasking crew with technical know-how, science background, creative leanings, and communication skills, such as knowing how people listen and learn, and knowing how to effectively and authentically translate science into relatable stories.

Remote Science Within Reach

In July of 2019, an international team of scientists studied the rapidly changing Arctic Ocean aboard the Swedish icebreaker, Oden. The ISC shared the expedition, moving deftly between researchers, audiences, and pre-produced video segments. The crew had to be ready to keep the broadcast going, even if the extreme Arctic environment disrupted their satellite signal with the research team.

Production control room staff direct broadcasts, quickly shifting from one site to another, injecting expert commentary, ancillary video, and more. They’re a little like a crew that broadcasts a football game or any other live, multi-camera event staffed by dozens. But they do it with a small, rotating crew of five-to-eight people. To date, the production control room team has collected 10 years’ worth of video. Its library includes ocean content, both deep-sea and topside in the field.

The book, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, by Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Disney Animation, is a model the team uses to inspire their workplace culture. They strive to cultivate a creative vibe and root out hidden forces that can cramp their creativity and problem-solving.

“Our success is tied to how well we can creatively think of solutions to problems,” says Alex DeCiccio ’10, production director.