StemCellShorts #2 – What are embryonic stem cells?

Author: Ben Paylor, 10/11/13

“Stem cell research is going to impact on the lives of all Canadians as we move to an era of new stem cell-based treatments for degenerative diseases.  StemCellShorts helps to engage the public in understanding the science of stem cells and I have been delighted to be involved.” –  Dr. Janet Rossant
, Chief of Research at Sick Kids Hospital and current President of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR).

Last month saw the launch of an exciting new science communication project, StemCellShorts. In this post I will briefly explain how each piece in the series was developed and expand on the process we’ve followed to turn an idea into reality. Full disclaimer, I am not an animator and, together with my project collaborator, Mike Long, could never have put together a production of this quality without a lot of support from numerous talented individuals.

Following our success in obtaining seed funding through a SCN Public Outreach Award, we were ready to begin. Given the depth of stem cell expertise in Canada, we proposed to have each video narrated by a prominent Canadian stem cell scientist. Although there were initial worries that it would be difficult to get busy researchers to commit to a project of this nature, we were pleased to have every one we asked sign on. Having such star-studded talent for the first three videos has certainly helped us in securing speakers and funding as we begin production on our next set of five shorts as well.

Creating a script that is free of academic jargon and complex language was certainly one of the most difficult parts of production. This process often runs counter to our scientific training that typically directs us to be as correct as possible, mention all caveats and not omit important details. To communicate science effectively is to ignore much of this training, focusing instead on creating a message that is engaging and understandable. The ultimate goal is to educate and entertain, and this needs to always be kept in perspective when thinking about scientific accuracy. We’ve been lucky to draw on a number of experts to aid in the scripting process and ensure that our final product will successfully communicate our intended message.

Following approval of the scripts, we began the process of scheduling visits to the narrators to record the audio. Narration is recorded in a single visit that takes about an hour, and is usually performed in the narrator’s office or any other suitably quiet environment. We also began to develop storyboards for our animator, David Murawsky, which depicts the different scenes and flow of the story. It took a considerable amount of work to arrive at the style we selected for the pieces, which balances some degree of realism with colourful and cartoonish elements. Intended for young adults, this allows us to move between more mechanistic (i.e. the differentiation cascade in this piece) and realistic scenes to explain the concepts included. Each animation has typically gone through 4-6 rounds of revisions that involve us balancing input from our diverse review committee, the narrators as well as the animator himself.

Finally, we worked with our sound designer, Emmy-award nominated James Wallace, to develop a score and add sound effects throughout the piece. The value of this cannot be overstated and it is really incredible to see how much more engaging the final product is with sound effects and music added.

To distribute the pieces, we have partnered with several stem cell and science organizations internationally to maximize the exposure of each video. We are also currently working on resources to help teachers integrate this content into classroom settings, as well as potentially having them utilized in a stem cell science museum exhibit in the works.

Please visit us again on October 25th for the final video in this pilot phase of the project, “What are induced pluripotent stem cells?” narrated by Dr. Mick Bhatia. And for those who missed the first release, we’ve embedded it for you below. If you are interested in embedding these videos on your own site, please contact me at ben (at) and I’ll provide details. 

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Ben Paylor

Ben Paylor

Ben Paylor completed a Bachelor of Medical Science at the University of Western Ontario, which included a 1-year research exchange to Umea in Northern Sweden. Following his Bachelors, he completed a 2-year Masters of Philosophy in Cardiovascular Biology and Medicine at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Experimental Medicine program under the supervision of Dr. Fabio Rossi at the University of British Columbia. His research focuses on understanding the role of tissue-resident mesenchymal progenitors in repair processes of the heart. Outside of science, Ben is an avid pianist and tennis player, as well as being very interested in the field of science communication and policy.  The writer and director of several award-winning science films, Ben is also the co-founder and director of InfoShots (, a science-based animation studio that is currently producing the Stem Cell Network's StemCellShorts series. Ben is the Chair of the Trainee Communications Committee at the Stem Cell Network, sits on the National Advisory Committee of the high school outreach program StemCellTalks and is a 2012/13 Action Canada fellow.
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