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Explaining adrenal glands for Scientific American

Graduate student, alumni create winning video

Alumni Nigel Morton, Dorea Reeser, Raluca Ellis and Mike Ellis at a Chemistry prom (photo courtesey Dorea Reeser)

The Scientific American challenge: create a two-minute video explaining a body part or process in a fun and engaging way using seven household objects – string, rubber bands, balls, pens, paper, cups and paper clips.

The winners: a creative team including University of Toronto PhD student Dorea Reeser, alumna Raluca Ellis,  alumnus Nigel Morton and alumnus Mike Ellis.

Best friends from their years together in the Department of Chemistry, Reeser and Elis honed their science engagement skills running demonstrations for U of T’s Science Rendezvous and Girls Rock Science. But with Ellis now at Harvard University for post-doctoral work, collaborating on the video posed a challenge.

“We only had a few days to do it in October, because Raluca and Mike, her husband, were going to be in town,” Reeser says. “We had one entire day of shooting in and outside of [chemistry building] Lash Miller – we story boarded it a day or two before, also in Lash Miller because there’s a great common room where we could sort of spread things out.”

Jointly narrated by Reeser and Ellis, the video also stars Ellis’s husband Mike, a comic book artist and novelist who graduated from University of Toronto Mississauga, as well as Reeser’s boyfriend, Morton, a classicist who completed his undergraduate degree at U of T and a master’s degree at the University of Chicago.

With friend Jason Lee wielding the camera, the result, The Adrenal Glands, is a light-hearted and memorable explanation of the role and importance of the adrenal glands.


“We started off thinking about muscles and how muscles work and the nervous system – but it was all too big to handle in two minutes,” Reeser explains. “Somewhere along the way we started talking about adrenaline.

“We just really like science – we didn’t go into this knowing exactly how the adrenal system worked, so we had to research it. And we’re really interested in educating high school students so we have experience making presentations geared to non-scientists.

"But there were a few times when one of the boys would say ‘don’t use that word, it’s too science-y’ and that was part of the challenge and the fun of it.”

In awarding the top prize to The Adrenal Glands, the judges uniformly praised the educational value and clarity of the video. Their comments, published at Scientific American, emphasize teams’ inventive use of props and humour, clear message and polished production values, from quick edits to clear sound.

Adrenal Glands was the hands down winner for me,” Emmy-award winning science documentary producer Chad Cohen told Scientific American. “Not only did the team elegantly and creatively incorporate all of the required props into their story, they revealed the inner workings of an important body system with clarity and pizazz.

“In two minutes we learn what the adrenal gland is, why we have them, how they work, and even, through some Oscar worthy performances, get to experience what they do. Thanks to this, I’ll be rethinking my graphics budget…from now on it’s just paper, rubber bands, and cups. Highly original and a pleasure to watch.”

Winning the competition does not come with a large cash award although Reeser is looking forward to her year’s free subscription to Scientific American. But the judges’ encouraging words are perhaps the greatest prize, says Reeser, citing a comment by judge Kirsten “Kiki” Sandford, a science media personality.

“She said she’d love to see more videos from our team,” says Reeser. “That’s really rewarding and motivating for us.”