SciAll’s Cabinet of Curiosities Episode 2 is Out Now!

And just when I was thinking that Science Communicator header was looking suspicious, too…

It’s true—while I’ve brazenly word-vomited enough to justify the title of Author and become a Creature of the Night in order to get that stuff out (Remember, Kids: Suffering Makes Better Art, And That Is True), my portfolio has been lacking in science communication this past year. I’d love to remedy that, though, and perhaps the best place to start would be my semester-long internship with SciAll last fall. SciAll is a nonprofit science communication platform founded by marine biologist Dr. Mike Gil with the aim of making science more accessible to anyone intimidated by STEM fields. Since SciAll is made entirely up of overbooked researchers volunteering their time, I was able to speak with so many intelligent, eccentric, and passionate people from (literally) across the country, and consider myself super lucky to be a part of their work.

In this episode of Cabinet of Curiosities, I collaborated with the University of Michigan’s own Dr. Jenan Kharbush, chemical oceanographer and microbial biogeochemist to tell the story of her STEM career through the lens of her styrofoam cups. We also talked about doodling, whale training, and seasickness. Check it out!

“While most scientists can’t stand styrofoam, chemical oceanographer Dr. Jenan Kharbush has a sentimental connection to these particular cups, and the origin story they carried from the ocean’s depths. In Cabinet of Curiosities Episode 2, “IF YOU FILL A CUP WITH OCEAN WATER, WILL YOU CATCH ANY WHALES?“, we explore minuscule microbes, magnificent whales, and the career paths that connect them both.

SciAll’s Cabinet of Curiosities tells the stories of real scientists through the oddities in their labs. Every scientist has their shrine, and every trinket or talisman has a story to tell. What wisdom lies in the drawers of a wunderkammer? Subscribe to find out!”

Behind the Scenes

You know, I’m sure that there’s something to be said for less talking about creating and more straight-up creating, but I have a crippling dopamine dependency to fuel and a captive audience, so I thought it might be fun to share my thought process for creating this video and others. While it’s not strictly science communication, I figure there might be something to teach, and more so, something for me to learn.

From my first day working with SciAll, I really resonated with their emphasis on storytelling to demystify science and make scientists more approachable. I’m proud to say that the Cabinet of Curiosities series was my original pitch to serialize this spirit, and to make learning about science careers like any other conversation. In particular, I was inspired by an NPR story that I wish I remembered more of about a scientist who kept the tarot card “The Fool” upside-down in his office. This obviously wasn’t newsworthy on its own, but the card served as a vehicle for talking about this scientist’s research—for him, it was a symbol for not only humbling himself, but for approaching research from differing perspectives. Knowing that, contrary to cultural belief, scientists are just as human as the rest of us, I figured every lab would have its knickknacks and shrines, its secret stories. With this series, I set out to tell them. Though it turns out these mementos were harder to come by than I’d assumed, I’ve already found so many interesting stories about scientists’s career paths and philosophies hidden in their desktop clutter. These days, I have much less time to dedicate to these videos, but I sincerely hope to explore more in the near future.

Telling Dr. Kharbush’s story was not only a privilege, but also a ton of fun. While it’s often hard to knead objects into straightforward metaphors, Dr. Kharbush knew exactly what I was going for when I asked her to interview for Cabinet of Curiosities. The titular styrofoam cups pretty much sell themselves—they’re charismatic, they physically embody the story of the video, and they have a preexisting connection to the ocean. Telling this story was such a breeze that we captured everything in one take—at 8:30 AM, no less—and there was very little I ended up having to cut.

While I’m still working with SciAll in a limited volunteer capacity, most of Episode 2 was filmed during the twilight of the Pandemic, or at least, when people decided it was the twilight. All of the interviews from this time, in-state or not, were screen-recorded over zoom, which we all know is difficult to make visually interesting. Aside from Dr. Kharbush’s photos, I tried to intersperse marine visuals where I could. When she described algae, I used footage from a plant biodiversity microscopy lab I was in at the time, and when she described marine ecosystems, I supplemented with video that I took at the Aquarium of the Bay at Fisherman’s Wharf. Being from a landlocked state, though, there was only so much water I could film, so I had to get a little creative.

And by creative, I mean I learned to animate. It’s not my best, I know—even now, I can spot several continuity errors—but it was (and still is) exciting to push myself out of my comfort zone for a project. This and the falling cup are black line-work on a white background, something I’m sure everyone is accustomed to on the ol’ Max Todd Dot Com (Max! Todd! Dot! Com!), but which deviates from the usual SciAll color scheme. Surprisingly, this wasn’t laziness on my end—even though it might blind nighttime viewers, I flipped the usual white-on-black aesthetic to black-on-white so it would look like the episode was itself drawn on a styrofoam cup. I didn’t want to buy any of those myself, of course, so the one I’m lowering into the very-much-not-ocean in the opening is actually from my Grandma’s house in Florida. Thanks for making the shot work, Grandma!

And finally, speaking of cups… in this case, they sure unearthed a mouthful of a title, right? “If You Fill A Cup With Ocean Water, Will You Catch Any Whales?” might seem a little pretentious (because it is. You all know I like pretentious titles), but it was meant to reference a Neil deGrasse Tyson quote. Unfortunately he’s a pretty controversial figure these days, and not someone I’d like to associate with morally, but through series like the beautiful continuation of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey in 2014, he was foundational in my STEM journey. This quote in particular was about the search for alien life—how, if you filled a cup of ocean water and found no whales within, you couldn’t conclude that whales didn’t exist. I like that image for a lot of reasons, but I felt it fit Dr. Kharbush’s journey in a different way—her initial whale-training aspirations might lead her to overlook the millions or billions of organisms that even a cup of ocean water would fish up: the keystone microbes which she now studies.

In the end, there are parts of this video that now feel rough around the edges, but I hope I’ll get the opportunity to smooth them out in future installments. Making art and science work in tandem has always been a passion of mine, and I hope it comes through here.

• • •

Cabinet of Curiosities is an ongoing series at made through my collaboration with scientists to tell their stories. If you’d like to check out more, the first episode is linked below. For more videos like this from talented editors and scientists alike, subscribe to on YouTube and consider supporting them on Patreon.



  1. emilyclaireynolds · March 27

    So proud of you, it’s a great video 🙂

    • maxtodd · March 27

      You are so sweet, thank you for supporting me 🙂 (don’t autocorrect to a lifeless emoji don’t autocorrect to a lifeless emoji don’t autocorrect to a lifeless emoji)

  2. yay!!!!! amazing work!!

  3. sabinaespinet · March 28

    Yay! I’m so proud of you! It’s so good!

  4. Pingback: March 2023 Wrap-Up 🌬 – The Bookish Mutant
  5. Pingback: Lethe | Out Now! | Max Todd.

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