Montana State University

MSU student's award-winning film explains the science of snow and precipitation

January 11, 2012 -- Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service

A film by MSU Science and Natural History Filmmaking graduate student Julia Sable about the role of airborne bacteria in causing rain and snow has won a prestigious award for its clear and fun explanation of science. The groundbreaking research at the heart of the film is from MSU professor David Sands, who has received international attention for his work. Photo courtesy of Julia Sable.   High-Res Available

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A Montana State University student's film about the role of airborne bacteria in causing rain and snow has won a prestigious award for its clear and fun explanation of science.

Julia Sable's five-minute film, "Snow," explains research suggesting that airborne bacteria are globally distributed in the atmosphere and may play a large role in the cycle of precipitation. The groundbreaking research at the heart of the film is from MSU professor David Sands, who has received national and international attention since his work was published in the journal "Science" in 2008.

In September, Sable, 34, was honored with the Judge's Choice Award for video in the Labby Multimedia Awards, given by "The Scientist," a magazine devoted to the life sciences. The American Phytopathological Society also recognized the film in 2010 with an honorable mention in a video contest sponsored by its Office of Public Relations and Outreach. Phytopathology is the study of plant diseases.

Sable made the film for an assignment several years ago, hoping to encourage people to associate scientific research like Sands' with recreational activities such as sledding and skiing. It is intended to help both children and adults learn about bio-precipitation, Sable added.

"We all share experiences with snow, whether it's the unpleasant experience of shoveling it or more fun experiences," she said. "It's just a surprising discovery that there would be this role of airborne bacteria in making snow."

If it sounds far-fetched to link bacteria to skiing, that's exactly the sort of unexpected idea that Sable hopes her viewers will notice.

"This research doesn't apply only in a lab," she said. "It affects all of us."

Sable approached Sands about featuring his work after reading about his research.
"Even though (Sands) studies these tiny things like bacteria, he has a big picture view of how this stuff can be applied," Sable said. "I thought it would be really interesting."

Sable calls her film's approach to the research playful. It includes footage of children sledding and features interviews with Sands and others, including an employee at Bridger Bowl who speaks about making snow at the popular local ski hill.

In the film, Sable also poses written questions and answers to viewers -- a technique she credits to the film's editor, MSU classmate Andrew Sobey -- that is meant to help explain the material.

"We wanted to have the bacteria emerge as a surprise," she said. "I knew that I wanted to put sledding and skiing in there, but I was having trouble figuring out exactly how to organize the film. It seemed a little choppy at first, but Andrew cleverly realized that was okay.

"We presented it in little bite-size pieces," she added. "We chose a tone to make the whole thing light."

The entire process of making the film took about six weeks, Sable estimated.

Sable, who earned a doctorate in geology before deciding to pursue filmmaking, is working toward a master of fine arts degree through MSU's graduate program in Science and Natural History Filmmaking. She currently works at the Museum of Science in Boston, communicating science and research to museum visitors. She plans to finish her master's degree from MSU this fall.

The MSU program was a great fit for Sable, she said, because it built on her background as a scientist.

"The program enabled me to use my science background, and the professors were so great about filling in all the rest," she said. "I had to learn the most basic stuff about operating a camera and about lighting, sound and editing."

And, through her studies at MSU, Sable has learned how to tell a science story in a compelling way. A filmmaker needs to include enough scientific details, but not so many that they weigh down a story or confuse viewers, she said.

"I can't let the film get bogged down in technical's about choosing an approach that will keep the material exciting and accessible," she said.

Several judges, at least, indicate that Sable has succeeded in that respect.

"The question/answer format promotes inquiry and multiple interviews, while short sound bites keep the tempo fresh and lively," wrote Labby Multimedia Awards judge Kirsten Sanford of Sable's film in "The Scientist."

Fellow judge Nigel Holmes wrote: "Terrific, what fun!"

And Sands, who said he has shown the film to audiences ranging from prospective students to scientists, said Sable not only nailed the science in her film, but she made it accessible to everyone.

"The way Julia communicates transcends all age groups," Sands said. "Everyone seems to be interested in this. Isn't that a talent?"

To view Sable's film, visit

To read more about bio-precipitation and Sands' research, visit

Julia Sable,; or David Sands, (406) 994-5151 or