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Photo by westpark/

Here’s the PSA I previously promised to link to: A video for the Madison Dental Initiative.


Video has consumed my life lately.

What works? How do you tug at the hearts of viewers without overwhelming them? What are good ways to engage an audience? How do you interview subjects about sensitive topics? What are the best ways to avoid clichés?

I’m still improving my technical skills, but I’ve found it easier to envision the stories I want to tell and how I want to tell them. One video, “Penny’s Heart,” serves as an excellent example to draw from. I originally saw the video on NPR’s website last year and was deeply touched by it.

In a sense, the producers framed the story almost like a PSA. They drew attention to a serious issue, put a face to a statistic and led the viewer to action (organ donation).

Despite its literal call to action, there’s more to it.

Maybe it’s a call to live life more fully. Or a chance to view one person’s disaster as another’s miracle. Either way, it makes you think. It makes you feel.

Grab the tissues.

Penny’s Heart was produced by Lukas Korver.

Justin Canha, a young man living with autism, was recently profiled by New York Times reporter Amy Harmon. She details Justin’s life, with special attention given to his artistic abilities. Photo by Justin Canha from Justin Canha Art.

A recent New York Times profile on a young man expanded my definition of interactivity and provided a unique glimpse into the lives of individuals and families affected by autism. After reading about the piece at the Open Notebook, a place for writers to digest and reflect on their work, I noticed author Amy Harmon uses the term “quick links” to describe a unique aspect of her approach — one where she sprinkles multimedia throughout the article to show, not tell, this young man’s story. The links range from photos and videos to audio slideshows on her subject. The term must be relatively new since the results from a Google search yielded descriptions of stainless steel.

If you take the time to read the 7,000 word article (it’s a doozy, but a darn good one), you’ll encounter a video at the top of the page providing an intro and summary of the author’s time with Justin. She documents his “coming of age” and struggle to gain independence as an adult living with autism. He’s about to leave his school program and wade into the uncertain waters employment and perhaps independent living. Five graphs down, you see your first quick link that opens up a video of Justin telling the camera about his family. Interestingly, the player expands over the text and collapses right back where it came from. The video also gives the viewer a sense of Justin’s mannerisms and personality, which are difficult to convey in plain copy without extensive character development.

Other quick links are slice-of-life videos scattered about the article, some revealing family home videos and others showing Justin’s interactions with others around him. If there’s one thing to say about this style of reporting, it’s certainly intimate. Justin and his family left an enormous hole for Harmon to occupy, which allows us to share experiences with Justin, not read about them. He lives, eats and breathes art and animation, and the article reflects that by quick linking to his great work (here and here). Even by looking at his website, I’m deeply impressed and humbled by his artistic ability, which has earned him awards and helped him sell projects for good money on occasion.

Another interesting choice the author made was using every bit of interactivity she could when discussing autism. When talking about therapies and options for the condition, she hyperlinks to peer-reviewed research to back her claims. I imagine she went to these lengths to battle misinformation that vaccines cause autism or that special diets can help people living with it. Writer Seth Mnookin also puts many of these claims to rest in a recent book with similar evidence.

Overall, I think this was a perfect piece for this type of adventurous interactivity. It gave us a perspective and road map we wanted to partake in.

What do you think? Did the quick links enhance the story? Or were they not as effective at times? Any thoughts?

Photo by kingfishpies/

The end of the semester is here, and alas, I’m burned out.

I hear this from other people all the time. The feeling of burnout is unique — even if you get several hours of sleep to recover, the cumulative effects of pressure and stress carry over to each day.

That’s why Scientific American‘s recent coverage of burnout piqued my interest, mainly because I feel at the hands of such things.

Although burnout lacks a definition in the DSM-IV, the article reports that an increasing number of psychologists are distinguishing it from other disorders such as depression and proposing it be taken more seriously. The article highlights the research of Agneta Sandström, who focuses on burnout’s impact on cognitive functioning. She discovered that, in fact, feeling burned out has a negative effect on our cognitive processes, diminishing our memory and ability to concentrate.

This is probably why people who experience burnout feel like they are doing more and getting less done (stress: 1, Marianne: 0); why people have issues falling asleep (2-zip), and why there’s no line between work and personal life (three strikes, I’m out).

But before pity parties ensue, I should note how fortunate I am to be able to attend grad school and still work as a freelancer. Time management is tough, but my largest inconvenience is missing the bus. Yeah… That’s about it.

I researched the man who coined “burnout” to find out that, well, his life was plagued with far more serious troubles than missing the bus. Herbert Freudenberger, the psychologist who conceptualized the term, grew up in Nazi Germany and witnessed his Jewish family being hauled away. After escaping, he moved in with his aunt, who forced him to live in her attic without a bed, according to Freudenberger’s obituary in The New York Times.

I can’t say I’ve experienced anything as heart-breaking as that, but I can relate to the small stressors that make Freudenberger’s concept so real to most.

Although there are many ways to cope with feeling burned out (most relate to stress management), I always find comfort in revisiting things that inspire me; things that make me feel good about what I’m trying to do with my writing.

One such thing is the video below. Discovery Communications, a company I routinely work for, couldn’t say it better: The world is just awesome.

Photo by Benny Geypens via Fotopedia

In a world riddled with high expectations, deadlines and competition, it’s difficult to stay grounded.

And by grounded, I mean avoiding the state of constant stress that I’m left with by the end of each week. Yes, weekends are recovery times of sorts.

The effects of chronic stress only hit home in the last year and a half or so, after I (falsely) thought my throbbing leg might be a sign of something more serious — namely deep vein thrombosis since I have a family history with the condition.

So after getting the thumbs up from an exam and electrocardiogram, I became more cognizant of the effects of stress on my body. In addition to sprouting a few gray hairs, I had occasional chest pains and was constantly thinking about what I ought to be doing with my off time, which clearly stripped any pleasure out of relaxing or taking a break.

Despite this, one can argue that stress is good. In the animal kingdom, adrenaline and other stress hormones jumpstart an organism’s fight-or-flight response, which can help it avoid becoming dinner. But in animals such as humans where stress can be created through experiences and mental processes, these temporary stress systems can be switched on permanently.

Despite my knowing this, I still failed to manage my stress.

In recent weeks, however, I think I’m coming around. After learning more about the Whitehall data on work-related stress, I’m convinced I need to rethink my health. Outside of primate studies, this was the first longitudinal attempt to measure the effects of stress in people. Essentially, the research focuses on whether hierarchy in the workplace influences health. It turns out this was very much the case, as individuals with less control over their jobs and hours were more stressed and exhibited poorer health and more sick days than their higher-ranking counterparts. And since the data were collected from British civil servants in the same workplace, factors such as access to health care were the same for the entire sample, limiting confounding variables.

I began asking whether it was even possible to live without stress. After all, our society seems to value productivity over wellness, which has definitely pushed stress to the backburner. As highlighted in National Geographic’s special on this “silent killer,” chronic stress can lead to heart disease, depression and a slew of other health problems.

The show also shared interesting story I heard through Stanford University’s Robert Sapolsky — the premier expertise on primate stress.

Given what we know about the topic, the question remains: Is it possible for humans and other primates with hierarchical societies to live without chronic stress?

Interestingly, Sapolsky stumbled upon this answer by accident while studying a group of wild baboons in East Africa. Baboons, primates that exhibit rather rigid social hierarchies, also demonstrated varying levels of stress hormones such as cortisol depending on their social rank, Sapolsky found.

With this line of reasoning, it makes sense that monkeys at the bottom of the totem pole would show increased levels of cortisol from being thrown around and intimidated by superiors (most of the aggressors were males). It’s also reasonable to apply this idea to humans — in fact, this line of research builds on why certain socioeconomic groups suffer more from health problems and have a harder time climbing the social latter.

After spending years studying one group (the Forest Troop), Sapolsky found that a tragic outbreak of tuberculosis wiped out many of the dominant males in the troop, leaving mostly less dominant females in its wake.

But rather than individuals taking the place of the group’s leaders, the less aggressive females kept things relatively peaceful. Even as newcomers joined the group, they adopted a less aggressive more egalitarian (mind my anthropomorphism here) society, which affected everyone’s level of stress. New males who came to the group soon learned the expectations of life there and adjusted their behaviors to fit in. Breaking down the strict hierarchy reduced stress among everyone. It is worth noting, however, that this is an isolated case, so it’s difficult to tell if history will repeat itself in this particular species.

Ultimately, it seems as if society and culture should take more responsibility for influencing stress and allaying it. Perhaps if we take stress reduction more seriously — at the individual and community level, Americans would reap the benefits of greater well-being and satisfaction with life. Yet it seems maintaining competitiveness and well-being is hard to do. We’ll need to change our perspectives and priorities for starters.

LinkedIn has a great overview of the topic — including Sapolsky’s work — in the video below.

All this talk of stress is, well, somewhat stressful! Now if you’ll excuse me while I try to relax!

Also, this wasn’t the focus of my post, but here are tips on stress reduction from

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About Me

Marianne is a science communicator working in Madison, Wis.

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