Birds and bricks: Explaining science with Lego (Jacinta Humphrey)

This year is La Trobe University's third year participating in the Visualise Your Thesis (VYT) competition. VYT was created by the University of Melbourne and opened nationally to other universities in 2018.

La Trobe University's VYT competition closed recently and the judging and popular vote for this year's entries is now complete! We invited Jacinta Humphrey to write this post for us because we are fans of her wonderful work in the research communication space! 

Image courtesy of Jacinta Humphrey 

What do you get when you combine science with Lego? This is the hypothesis I accidentally tested last year. It wasn’t an experiment I planned, and you won’t it find written up in any of my thesis chapters, but I’m so glad I did it.

I love all things scicomm (science communication), so when I first heard about the Visualise Your Thesis competition, I couldn’t wait to enter! VYT challenges graduate researchers to create a 60-second video neatly explaining their thesis topic. Entrants can use any medium they like, and are encouraged to make it eye-catching, engaging and memorable. 

I wanted to work with a medium that everyone could connect with, including kids. I really enjoy engaging kids in science, and I saw this as a great opportunity to explain my work in a way that they would (hopefully) understand. 

I wanted to use Lego and stop-motion animation to explain my PhD research, which focuses on the influence of urban development on bird communities. 

Full of excitement, I dug out my old Lego collection, borrowed some extra bits and pieces from some helpful friends (shout out to the Dutka and Caldwell families!) and got to work writing my story. This was by far the most challenging - and also the most beneficial - step in creating my video. I was forced to think about the big questions – what is my PhD really about? What am I trying to achieve? What are the key points I need to get across to my audience? I quickly discovered that when you only have 60 seconds to explain a four-year research project, you need to make every word count!

Once I had my story sorted, I set up a makeshift studio to bring it to life (in reality, I commandeered a meeting room in my building). Unfortunately, my ‘studio’ had large glass windows and was located close to the Departmental tearoom. It wasn’t long before I had several confused and intrigued people knocking on the door, trying to figure out what I was up to. As it turns out, arranging Lego in a public space attracts a bit of attention! I ended up making a sign explaining what I was doing and got stuck into the filming.

Stop-motion animation involves a series of still photographs where objects are moved in tiny little increments. When all the photos are edited together, it looks as though the objects are moving on their own. My filming involved taking 100s of photos of a Lego set using an iPad and an app called iMotion. I would set up a scene, map out where my character would walk, and think about what other elements might move in the background. Then I would take a photo, move the Lego, take a photo and move the Lego. It was a painfully slow process, but I captured all the images in two days. It then took a further two days to edit all the scenes together, and add in background music, subtitles and narration. You can view my final submission from the 2019 Visualise Your Thesis competition here!

So, what were the findings of my Lego scicomm experiment? My results show that Lego can be an effective way of explaining scientific research! While I didn’t win the Visualise Your Thesis competition in 2019, I was fortunate enough to take home the La Trobe University People’s Choice Award for the most popular video. 

What started off as just a bit of fun, has now grown to something much bigger. My original submission has recorded over 800 views on YouTube to date. People that I’ve never met have reached out via email and social media to tell me how much they enjoyed watching my project come to life through Lego. I love receiving these little messages of positivity, especially when they say that my video was a hit with their kids. 

Since creating this 60-second clip, I have used it in several outreach events (including the Pint of Science Festival), my PhD Mid-Candidature seminar, and a recent Twitter conference where I won an Outstanding Presentation Award. This Lego scicomm experiment has really opened doors for me, and each opportunity has led to another (including the chance to write this blog post!).

If you’re considering running your own scicomm experiment, here are my top tips:

  1. A picture tells 1000 words – Use imagery, infographics, or illustrations to explain concepts and help your audience visualise things. Aim to use as little text as possible.
  2. Tell a clear and succinct story – I distilled my entire PhD down to 126 words. When writing your story, make sure your language is free from jargon and easy to understand (this is especially important if you want to target a younger audience).
  3. Make it memorable – Use eye-catching imagery, bright colours, catchy music, or whatever works for you! You want your audience to be completely engaged in your work. If they enjoy it and remember it, they may even share it with their friends or colleagues!

After some encouragement from the staff at the library (thank you, Katie Weise!), I re-entered the VYT competition this year. I further refined my story, and added a new soundtrack, subtitles and narration. You can view my submission for this year (and 15 other amazing entries) here.

Overall, my advice is to give it a go! Don’t be afraid to stand out and try something new when communicating your research. You never know where it may lead!


Jacinta Humphrey is a PhD student in the Department of Ecology, Environment and Evolution, School of Life Sciences. 

Her research focuses on the influence of expanding urbanisation on bird communities. Specifically, she aims to understand how local housing density and canopy tree cover affect bird diversity, community composition, and the occurrence of individual species in greater Melbourne.

Jacinta is passionate about making urban spaces more wildlife-friendly and is always looking for new and interesting ways to communicate her science. You can find her on Twitter as @HumphreyJE_.