Engaging Local Communities Through a Science-Themed Film Festival

Aug. 15, 2023

A little over 10 years ago, during a snowy winter at Bard College in upstate New York, Mark Chee, Ph.D., had an epiphany. Looking for ways to engage his students as part of the school’s Citizen Science program, Chee took up the suggestion of the program director to screen the 2011 film ‘Contagion,’ an overlapping narrative exploration of a global viral pandemic. "I found that my students took really well to watching the film and then applying what they were learning in lecture," remembered Chee.

Fast forward a decade, and Chee has used funds from ASM’s Community Science Grant program to turn that seemingly one-off diversion into a monthly film festival held at his current institution, the University of Tennessee Southern.

A Softer Approach

Syringe and medicine bottles under a banner reading "The Vaccine War"
Flyer for Screening of "The Vaccine War" Film as Part of the UT Southern Film Festival.
Source: Mark Chee.
"I was inspired to act when I saw the kind of reaction there was to the COVID-19 pandemic," said Chee, an assistant professor of biology. "I was particularly concerned about addressing the erosion of trust in public health authorities, [and] the mistrust and misunderstanding of vaccine development and vaccine safety." These issues, according to Chee, "are particularly acute in the rural southeast" where UT Southern is located.

Chee also pointed to feeling a sense of responsibility as an educator. "I'm training the next generation of nurses; I'm training the next generation of public health professionals," he pointed out. "They're going to be the ones at the front-line" during future scientific and medical challenges.

Instead of jumping into debates on social media or engaging in back-and-forth exchanges through traditional media, Chee decided to take what he termed a "softer" approach—using movies. The idea, he explained, was to "have people watch a story, have them question the story—and then let's get at this together, where I can get experts in to comment about the story and address some of the questions that come up."

This approach of bringing different groups together, welcoming dissent and engaging in conversation is critical for inspiring behavior change. "The narrative that you like is not necessarily the one that is true," Chee noted.

Engaging With Experts

The films screened each month include documentaries and feature films, with a focus on topics, such as antimicrobial resistance, microbiomes, foodborne illnesses and vaccines. Each screening includes Q&A sessions with expert panelists (both in-person and online) who not only address the scientific issues covered by the films, but also the cultural and historical context.

A microbe merged with a human head with text.
Flyer for screening of "What's Living in You?" film as part of the UT Southern Film Festival.
Source: Mark Chee.
Jillian Socea, Ph.D., MB(ASCPP), an Association of Public Health Laboratories fellow at the Tennessee Antimicrobial Resistance Laboratory Network, enthusiastically participated in 2 separate screenings as one of the scientific experts. "I love participating in outreach that brings people to an informal setting to discuss science issues that impact all people," said Socea. "Being able to communicate the importance of science to as many people as I can is very important to my life purpose."

Tasha M. Santiago-Rodriguez, Ph.D., a Diversigen R&D Data Scientist III who studies the microbiome, also served as a panelist. "I decided to participate because I wanted to reach out to students about my topic of research," she stated.

Favorable Reviews

Feedback from attendees has also been positive. "Students enjoyed the 'What’s Living in You?' documentary, and there were a number of great questions," recalled Santiago-Rodriguez. "I found it fascinating how much gut health can influence the decisions you make when it comes to diet," said UT Southern student Brad Alexander, who attended several of the film screenings.

Others had a more visceral experience. "One of my students literally told me that she lost her lunch watching 'The Trouble with Chicken,' (a PBS Frontline documentary about poultry-based foodborne outbreaks)," remembered Chee with a laugh. "I think that's good. We really do need to be shaken out of our comfort zones sometimes."

Chee made sure to invite not just students and teachers on campus, but also local community residents. "I did try advertising [through] a couple of outlets like the local libraries. I reached out to the local radio station, and 2 local newspapers," he pointed out. "We even wrote to a local veterans group because we did 2 events that were World War I/World War II-themed."

What Comes Next?

Chee plans to keep the film festival going for the upcoming school year, with a few changes in mind. "In the past year I used mainly documentaries [and] short films," explained Chee. "Going forward, I’ll be exploring using a few more feature films and shifting the festival’s thus far exclusive focus on infectious diseases."

Participants are also clamoring for a sequel. "I think this festival is wonderful," exclaimed Socea. "If anything, I’d love to see wider access to such an event."

Like any good movie, this story seems poised for a happy ending.

Every year, ASM offers small grants, up to $500, to members who are interested in organizing or participating in public science events in their communities. Learn more about other community science grant recipients.

Author: Geoff Hunt, Ph.D.

Geoff Hunt, Ph.D.
Geoff Hunt earned his Ph.D. in molecular biology from Princeton University.