Real Researchers Star in a University’s Creative TV Spot

If you’ve ever watched a college football game, you’ve seen a university public service announcement (PSA) airing at halftime. You know the spots I’m talking about too. They usually feature a deep voiced male spouting off about commitment, excellence, and scholarship. They often include beautiful campus shots, maybe a peek inside a classroom, a scene in a lab, and maybe another with students doing something fun. And they always end with a university logo and an uninspired tagline.

At Georgia Tech, a lot of effort has been put into being different.

Here are some examples:

In 2009, Tech’s football PSA took a funny look at the research behind creating a winning vehicle for the annual Mini-500 tricycle race. (It won an Emmy award!)

In 2010, we created a battle of the bands between a marimba playing robot and a student who rocked a drum kit. (This one also won an Emmy!)

In 2013, mechanical engineering major Nick Selby gave an incredible convocation speech that went viral. (Trust me, you’ll remember seeing it.) So, it was a no-brainer – make it into a PSA!

In 2014, Tech traced the path of a prosthetic leg from idea to production to delivery to a patient in Belize. The spot didn’t have a single spoken word in it.

…and that brings us to 2015.

This year’s public service announcement (featured at the top of this post) is the first to incorporate Georgia Tech’s new brand platform, Creating the Next. It features a female lead character, uses equations from a variety of research areas to show interdisciplinary, showcases our culture of hard work and tenacity, emphasizes diversity, and embraces the fact that we’re both ‘nerdy and nice’. …it’s a lot packed into 30 seconds.

Even more interesting is the fact that every person in the spot is a real Georgia Tech researcher…no actors!

In all, ten faculty/student researchers were involved – including several who helped create the scientific ‘thought bubbles’ featured throughout the piece.

The lead is played by Amy Sharma, Branch Head, Applications, Architecture, and Insight for the Information and Communications Laboratory at the Georgia Tech Research. I was proud to recruit her to take part in the spot, but she may never forgive me for getting her involved in an all-nighter. (Read her wild story below.)

Jud still shot

Yes, that’s Jud in the red circle.

I also recruited Jud Ready, Principal Research Engineer in the Electronic Systems Laboratory at the Georgia Tech Research Institute and Deputy Director of Georgia Tech’s Institute for Materials. His role was a bit smaller. I circled him on the screenshot so it’s easier for you to find him. He flew home from a family vacation so he could take part…and then flew right back to the beach when he was done.

So what do you do with two researchers who have gone above and beyond the call of duty? You ask them to participate in a Q&A…and I’m glad they said yes.


1. Did you ever think you’d wind up appearing in the Georgia Tech football PSA?

Amy Sharma:  Not in a million years. Mainly, I thought I was too old for such a thing.

Jud Ready:  No. It was never a career goal of mine.

 

2. This is certainly above and beyond the call of duty, and you did this on your own time. Why’d you accept the challenge?

Amy:  It seemed like it could be fun. Also, I was told I’d get to go home by 2 am. That was a bold-faced lie. At least I got some free BBQ and M&Ms.

Jud:  I figure this opportunity is not going to come along very often, so I better do it while I have the chance. Also, my friend and collaborator at U. Alabama was in his school’s PSA a couple years ago, so I wanted to be able to harass him by saying that my 5 seconds of fame was better than his 5 seconds of fame.

 

3. Walk me through the on-set experience? 

Amy:  So I was there from 8 pm to 7 am. I did not realize that it would take an entire hour to do my hair and makeup, or that there would be a 30-minute discussion on my shirt choices.

I last rode a bike 3 years ago on Rottnest Island, Western Australia (http://www.rottnestisland.com/) because you can’t actually drive a car there. Prior to that, I’d last rode when I was 8. While the expression “it’s like riding a bike” may be true, I am not very good at it. And then they wanted me to drive this bike, which didn’t have functional brakes, behind a van holding the camera.

Let’s review: It’s 3 am, it’s dark, I am tired, I don’t know how to ride a bike well, this one doesn’t have breaks, and they want me to follow a van holding a camera. The director kept telling me to “look like you are thinking about something hard.” That turned out to be really easy because I was really concentrating on not dying.

This did lead to my one diva moment of the night. They finally wrapped up all the street scenes at about 4 am. And I had ridden a bike all over, following this van, and they say “okay, now you can bike back to home base.” First off, I had no idea where I was and second, I didn’t much like the idea of riding anywhere else on the death-trap bike in the dark. So I said “how about one of you all, who have been sitting in the van for two hours, drive the bike and I get to sit in the van?” it wasn’t quite, “I said I only wanted green M&Ms” – but I am new at this.

Jud:  I was actually going to be on vacation in the Southern Outer Banks (SOBX) of North Carolina during the shoot, so I decided to cash in frequent flyer miles to fly back to do the ‘shoot’ for a day. During the shoot, there was a tremendous amount of waiting around doing nothing on the set. I also wore makeup for the first time in my life. They say we got the scene done in 10 takes, which the Director seemed pleased with, so maybe there’s a future in this for me if the science thing doesn’t work out.

As for my role, I actually play a bit part. Originally I was the old research guy in the back carrying the bubbling liquid nitrogen, but then we changed to me sitting in front of a computer while pointing at the screen and talking to a student. A role I was made to play.

What was terribly disappointing was that the hard work we did getting a crazy cool virus/vaccine to animate on the computer is completely blocked – unbeknownst to the student or me – by another student in the foreground! Oh well, when you see it you’ll know what I mean.

 

4. Do you think it’s important for researchers to get outside of the lab for adventures like this – and other types of broader engagement? If so, why?

Amy:  I do support engaging the community at large. Researchers don’t do it enough. As scientists, we have a responsibility to advocate for the sound application of science to public issues. I am not sure how these random equations will get normal people to respect science. I am scared that one of these equations are wrong and the trolls will be all over it. [Editor’s Note: We had four professors work out the equations, so we are pretty certain we’re in the clear.]

Jud:  I think it is important for researchers to share what they do with the ‘common man’ – particularly as it relates to how our work may improve the economy, human experience, etc. I hope the PSA is a way for sports fans to gain an appreciation (in 30 seconds or less) of a small slice of the work that goes on in a researchers head – and lab.

 

5. What other engagement activities are you involved in? …and why?

Amy:  I am involved with IEEE Women in Engineering. We volunteer at local middle schools and science festivals. It is important to reach girls in middle school because that is when they stop believing in themselves. They need positive role models and mentoring so they can see STEM as a viable career option for themselves.

Jud:  I participate in an outreach program called ‘Direct to Discovery’ that brings advanced technology (carbon nanotube growth in my case) to K-12 kids in Georgia and elsewhere via high-definition (1080p) video conferencing that also links to my research equipment so the students can actually participate in the research and control the equipment (with adult supervision, of course.)

 

6. What do you plan to do with your new-found fame?

Amy:  I hear there is an opening on the Daily Show….or maybe I can successfully lobby for paid paternity leave and other work/life balance issues.

Jud: Retire to SOBX…in about a dozen years.


Credits:

Georgia Tech faculty members Lew Lefton, Peter Ludovice, Jennifer Leavey, and Edwin Greco assisted with the formulas and equations in the spot.

In addition to Amy and Jud, researchers Michael Baksh, Rena Ingram, Jennifer Beveridge, and Robert Demont appeared in the spot.

Huge kudos to the Georgia Tech Creative Services and Brand Management Team that created the spot.

(UPDATED @ 1:39 pm 8/30 to correct Amy Sharma’s job title and lab affiliation.)

(UPDATED @ 8:56 pm 8/31 to correct Jud Ready’s lab affiliation.)

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