Episode 44 – Interview with visual science communicator Dr Tullio Rossi

This week we loved catching up with award-winning science communicator, marine biologist and graphic designer Dr Tullio Rossi. As founder of the science communication agency “Animate Your Science”, he helps researchers tell their story to the world. 

His engaging video animations and eye-catching graphics make science understandable for everyone, reaching millions of people around the world, thereby creating a real-life impact.

You can follow Tullio and learn more about his work here:


Jen (00:00:00)
Hello and welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne Science Communication Teaching Team. I’m Associate Professor Jen Martin and my wonderful co-host is Dr Michael Wheeler and we believe that science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.

Jen (00:01:09)
Hello everybody and a very, very warm welcome to another episode of Let’s Talk SciComm. I’m Jen and as ever, I am joined by my very trusty associate, friend, sidekick. How… What would you like to be today, Michael?

Michael (00:01:25)
“Partner in crime” I think was my favourite title, so let’s go with that.

Jen (00:01:27)

Jen (00:01:29)
Well, we need to come up with some crimes to commit then.
I think the problem is that neither you nor I are very good criminals. So…

Michael (00:01:34)
Or are we? Are we just saying that because we’re on a podcast?

Jen (00:01:38)
Shh. Don’t tell anybody.

Michael (00:01:41)
I know. We have to keep our crimes a secret. But no, I’m doing very well Jen.
I was actually at a conference earlier this week. It was face to face. So very exciting, lots of chat about science communication and yeah, a lot of scientists being very creative in how they translate their work and communicate their work.
And a good few people actually showing me videos that they’ve made or animations that they’ve dabbled in, and even including them in the presentations themselves. So that was great to see. So yeah, I would have to say I’m feeling quite animated.

Jen (00:02:17)
What a shame that our listeners can’t see your animated face.

Michael (00:02:24)
Yeah, I know. I know. It’s a shame. But very fitting mood for today’s episode, Jen. Because our guest today has, is Dr Tullio Rossi who’s made it his mission to have a positive impact on society through science and specifically science animation. So welcome Tullio.

Tullio (00:02:43)
Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here and great segue by the way.

Jen (00:02:47)
I think great there being perhaps in inverted commas.
Great, great segue…

Michael (00:02:55)
Well no, that was actually my first question.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how great was that segue?

Tullio (00:02:59)
I’ll give you 11.

Jen (00:03:01)
So Tullio, we’re very, very excited that you’ve joined us because you are someone that I’ve been aware of for many, many years. And I was trying to remember last night which Australian Science Communicators Conference we met at. And I absolutely have no idea, to be honest. Maybe you can remember. It was quite a long time ago.
And I remember just listening to you talking about the work that you were doing and just thinking, that is so cool. Like having the guts to identify this real gap in the market essentially, recognising that you know, we know that animations and visual communications of science are just so effective and you recognizing that you had these skills and being brave enough to say, “Well, let’s have a go and start a business”.

Tullio (00:03:38)
That’s great to hear. You remember that conference. I believe it was the 2017 conference in Adelaide?

Jen (00:03:40)
See, I knew you’d remember. I’ve got a terrible memory.

Tullio (00:03:44)
And that was the very very beginning of my journey in this new career and in business. And I remember, you know, presenting basically my intentions of what I was going to do anyway. It was still very much an unvalidated idea back then. And somebody from the audience literally asked me, “Do you really think you can make a living with this?”

Jen (00:04:04)
Did you just pull the dagger out of your heart as they spoke?

Tullio (00:04:09)
I literally did and said, “Well, I don’t know, but I will try”.
Yeah, actually it worked.

Jen (00:04:15)
And look at what you’ve done.

Tullio (00:04:18)
It worked. It’s unbelievable. But it did work and I guess the main ingredient was persistency and willingness to learn.

Michael (00:04:28)
Yeah, it must have been a very exciting time to actually make the leap to starting your own business, you know, from your, your background, which is in marine biology.

Tullio (00:04:38)
That’s right.

Michael (00:04:39)
And yeah, so hat’s off to you.

Jen (00:04:40)
All the best people have backgrounds in marine biology Michael. Didn’t you know?

Michael (00:04:43)
Yes. Yeah. We’ve interviewed a few people with backgrounds in marine biology.
So there must be something about marine biology.

Tullio (00:04:50)
Yeah, also Randy Olson is marine biologist.

Jen (00:04:54)
Yeah, absolutely. My beginning was definitely in marine biology, so…

Michael (00:04:57)
And you did marine biology at the University of Bologna Tullio, over in Italy.

Tullio (00:05:01)
That’s right. I am from Bologna. I did my undergrads, half of my master degree there, half of it in California.
And then this position appeared in Adelaide to do exactly the research project I wanted to do, in effect of climate change and specifically ocean acidification on sea life.
And back then, I honestly could not put Adelaide on the map if you ask me.
But here I am now. I’ve been living here for 10 years. I love it. It’s my new home.

Jen (00:05:35)
But is the lasagna any good in Adelaide? That’s the most important question, right?
If you’re, if you’re from Bologna.

Tullio (00:05:41)
Yeah, that is a sensitive topic. I would say I have two friends that started a restaurant and they’re doing an amazing job. They’re both Italian and they make living here so much easier for me because I know I can get a top quality pizza and tiramisu. And with those two things that I can make it through the, the struggle.

Michael (00:06:08)
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think during lockdown we had found this emergency lasagna service that we have had tapped into a few times. But umm yeah, you just call a number and then a lasagna will arrive at your door.

Tullio (00:06:21)
Damn, we don’t have that in Adelaide.

Jen (00:06:25)
Somehow it always comes back to the food on this podcast, doesn’t it Michael?

Michael (00:06:33)
I know. Yeah. Yeah. We’ll, we’ll have to get some cooking tips because we were having a bit of a chat about lasagna and tortellini as well before we started recording so…

Jen (00:06:43)
Yum, delicious.

Michael (00:06:44)
But you mentioned your PhD work there. You also were awarded a Dean’s commendation for that work. So congrats Tullio.

Tullio (00:06:47)
Thank you.

Michael (00:06:48)
And that’s not the only award that you’ve won. You’ve won several awards for science communication including the Best Educational Video Award in the World Bank’s Global Film Competition.

Tullio (00:06:59)
That’s right.

Michael (00:07:01)
Yeah, so congrats for that. And you’ve also won some awards in the field of business, the 40 under 40 award for business leaders who’ve made an impact in South Australia. So congratulations for that.

Tullio (00:07:15)
That’s right. I was very very proud about that one. Yes, they gave, gave me the opportunity to meet the South Australian Premier, which was a really cool experience to go to Parliament House and actually meet him face to face and realising he’s just a regular dude and he loves to swear.

Michael (00:07:32)
Oh really?

Tullio (00:07:33)
He’s not afraid to, to swear. Yeah. Yeah, I want the, probably for the listener, listeners, we need to piece pieces of puzzle together to, to understand why the heck I ended up doing what I’m doing.
And I will, I will say that the first piece is me as a 17 year old learning graphic design after school just because it was fun. And then at some point, my friend saying, “Hey, you’re good with this graphic design stuff. Let’s make the flyer for the next event” because he organised events and in clubs and bars.
So I thought, “Oh, that’s brilliant. Yeah let’s, let’s do it.” So I made the flyer and then another one and then another one. And then I met the guy who was printing them and he said “Oh, you’re pretty decent. Do you want some poorly paid work?”

Jen (00:08:20)
What an offer!

Tullio (00:08:23)
You know, I was 18, so no big deal. And I was still getting free entry and free drinks in the clubs, which was probably better than money for an 18-year-old. So I, I did that for a fair few years or all the way till the, my master’s degree. I kept doing graphic design for events for the most part.
But then what happened during the PhD is that I actually kind of connected the dots when I realised that science desperately needs better communication and visual communication in particular. And so my background graphic design came very handy. First time I noticed was when I had to make my first scientific poster. And I just did it the way I, I thought it was right with my background in graphic design.
And it won a prize right away. I was like, “Wow, OK”. I picked poster design as one of my battles now. I want to improve the way researchers design posters. Because just by applying a few graphic design principles, nothing fancy, nothing complicated, you can have such better posters.
And then later on in my PhD, when I published my first paper after getting rejected 7 times. That was a fun experience. Almost also got scooped because the paper got rejected, not because it was bad, but because it was too novel and somebody got jealous out there and they tried to steal it.

Michael (00:09:47)
Oh no.

Jen (00:09:48)

Tullio (00:09:48)
Yeah, I had that fun experience.

Michael (00:09:48)
That is terrible. How did you find out someone got jealous and tried to steal it?

Tullio (00:09:52)
Because that person who I then figured out who was, because you know, there’s not that many people doing research in that niche where I was working on, my supervisor found that same person on a research cruise going to the same island where I got my data, trying to replicate my study before my stuff got published.
So yeah, he managed to get me rejected a fair few times, but in the end, he failed. And the research was about climate change and the effect it has on marine life. So I realised there’s absolutely no commercial application whatsoever. The only point of this research is to let the public know what we’re risking here if we don’t do anything about our carbon emissions.
So I concluded I need to get this story out somehow and I realised I just could not rely on this peer-reviewed paper alone. So leveraging my graphic design experience, I thought Okay, maybe I can make a simple animation. And the Italian accent helped also making the voiceover memorable.
But anyway, the experience of that video was incredible because all of a sudden, thousands of people were learning about the research. And I even got an email one day from a stranger saying, “Oh, I watched your video and I finally understand what the problem is with this ocean acidification thing. Thank you for doing what you’re doing.”
And I realised, “Hang on, I think nobody ever told me thank you for my research up until this point.” So, it was a very rewarding experience. It made me realise that there are nice people out there, not just nasty climate change deniers, but also very nice people that will show signs of gratitude if we, researchers, put that little extra effort to make our research more accessible and you know, explain it in plain English.
And so, that’s when I started to think, “Okay, maybe I’m onto something here. Maybe if I take this more seriously, I can start a freelancing business.” And then from freelancing business, it became a real business.
And now, I have a team, four amazing full-time employees plus freelancers that help us with various things like voiceovers, sound design, and we’re doing really cool stuff which we’re really proud of.
And so we work with researchers, with universities, with CSIRO and other government organisations, with pharmaceutical companies, NGOs, you name it, all for explaining science using storytelling and animation videos.

Michael (00:12:45)
Yeah. And I think for the listeners out there, you have to go and check out some of your work. So the website’s animateyour.science I believe. But if you just Google animate your science, your website pops up pretty close to the top.

Tullio (00:12:54)
Phew, luckily.

Michael (00:12:55)
I think, yeah.

Jen (00:12:57)
Hopefully at the very top.
Tullio, tell us your latest amazing SciComm endeavour, which we haven’t mentioned yet.

Tullio (00:13:02)
We launched what effectively is the world first science communication magazine. And it’s a mobile first magazine you read on your phone and it’s 100% free. It’s called SWIPE SciComm.
So just Google SWIPE SciComm and you’ll find it. And we made it for researchers and science communication professionals. And it’s currently a quarterly issue. And I think it’s here to stay because the, the feedback we’ve got has been extremely extremely positive.

Jen (00:13:31)
And I just think it’s great that you, yet again have identified you know, here’s this space. Nothing’s happening here. This is something we all need to do, have more people finding it easy to access information about effective SciComm. Let’s create a magazine. And I’m so glad that you see that it’s something to stay because I thought the first issue was fantastic.
It’s an amazing story though Tullio. ‘Cause I listened to you and think you know, you went through this very personal experience of recognising the deficits in your own communication, when you were doing what you’d always been trained to do. And many of our listeners would have their own similar stories of saying, “What I was taught to do just wasn’t enough to lead to the difference in the world that I wanted to see.”
So why, why is it that scientists, most scientists still aren’t trained in different communication techniques? You know, why aren’t students all being taught from the very beginning, “Well you know, this is a scientific method. Go out and do this. But then when it comes to communicating your work, here are all of the things you should think about.”
It just seems so crazy that it’s little personal experiences that have led people like us to say, “Communication is just as important as the science itself.” So, why is that?

Tullio (00:14:28)
So yeah, we’re expecting researchers to be great presenters and great at making posters and many other things, but institutions actually are not providing training in these skills. And so then it’s not even the researcher’s fault if they improvise the way they think is right and then have average results.
And that’s exactly the problem that is so obvious with posters. Everyone just gets given the template from an older postdoc in the lab and assumes, Oh, if they did it that way, must be right. I’ll do it following this format too. And so, the same mistakes continue to happen.
So yeah, one of the things I do is to teach poster design, to break this status quo and bring a few principles of graphic design into the mind of scientists. When they get in there, it’s amazing. The results are like day and night.
When you go to the conference, the result is they have many more conversations, much more networking, and that really is the purpose of the poster.
In my view, it is a networking tool above everything else.

Michael (00:15:37)
Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, that’s great.

Jen (00:15:39)
Yeah, 100%. It’s about starting conversations.

Michael (00:15:41)
Yeah. I’m just curious about that on your website, it says your mission statement is to have a positive impact on society through animation. So yeah, just curious about what kind of impact these pieces of animation and the graphical abstracts that you do.
What impact do they have? Are you able to track that in any way?

Tullio (00:16:03)
In terms of research, I would say video abstracts are extremely effective when combined with media releases because we’ve seen journalists literally jumping on them.
Like we had this instance of a very cool research that came out of Flinders University. They created a sponge to suck oil from oil spills made from waste materials that are dirt cheap.
They prepared the media release. They embedded the video abstract in the media release. Of course, we made that video abstract so it was targeted to the general public. So it was easy to understand, no jargon, just an easy story to follow. And the journalists loved it.
I spoke with the science writer of The Advertiser, which is the major newspaper in South Australia. She told me, “Oh, please more. We love this stuff. My boss told me we have to have a video in every article that goes online.”

Michael (00:16:55)
Oh, wow.

Tullio (00:16:56)
And I was like, “Wow”.
And then when I saw the article, they put the video above the title. So in the most prominent spot you could place it.
What does this mean for us researchers? Having a video abstract massively increases the chances of your media release being picked by the journalists because they want video desperately.

Jen (00:17:20)
So I’m just thinking you know, that… Obviously what you’re saying, we all hear truth in that and understand that video is just such a powerful format these days.
How realistic is it for somebody who doesn’t have any background in graphical design like you do, to learn some of these skills and be able to kind of do this themselves? Is that at all feasible?

Tullio (00:17:40)
The entry level of the world of animation are whiteboard animations. And there are some really easy-to-use software, like the one I used to use is called VideoScribe. And really, I can say this is within reach of everyone.
However, you need to be ready to put some hours in it because the video is not going to make itself. You know, it needs to be scripted. It needs to be storyboarded. You need to plan what visuals to use.
Then the software helps you because it has a library of artwork you can use off the shelf so you don’t have to draw everything. Some things, though, you might have to draw. So you need to be ready for that also. But these, you know, if you’re a PhD student and you believe in the value of this and you have the time, you can definitely do it, just like I did.
I just had to sacrifice a couple of weekends and a few evenings. And I created a video that changed my life. Literally, the trajectory of my life got changed because I made that video. I can boil it down to that decision without a doubt. So that’s within reach for everyone.
Then, of course, animation keeps going up and up and up and up in complexity, dynamism, how many things move, how they move, all the way to 3D animation like Pixar. And the price range is unbelievably wide.
You go from you know, a few thousand dollars for a couple of minutes of animations to 40,000 dollars per second for something like Pixar. Of course, this is an overkill for any researcher.

Michael (00:19:16)

Jen (00:19:20)
That’s a big grant, right? I need 40,000 bucks per second for my 5 minute video.

Tullio (00:19:28)
Yes, I know. It’s unbelievable. It was a surprise to myself when I started in this line of work.
So for example, what we do with our clients is that we offer different packages at different levels, from the more affordable to the more fancy.
And depending on your brand and the look and feel you want to give and your budget, we have a solution for you.

Michael (00:19:51)
Yeah. Well that’s really interesting Tullio.
And I think the work that you’re doing is part of a really powerful trend in the scientific community. You know, where the popularity of graphical abstracts and video abstracts is increasing.
And for students as well, you’ve got competitions like Visualize Your Thesis. And we can really see that this is a, it is a powerful trend.
So yeah, just curious to get your thoughts on that. You know, where would you like to see this trend go in the next 10 years?
What you know, what could it be like for the next generation of scientists?

Tullio (00:20:23)
I would say if you think about the adoption curve of a product of any kind, you got the pioneers and the early adopters. I think now we’re at the early adopter stage.
Then, you know, the bulk is still to come in the next 5 to 10 years. I think it’s going to really explode.
And I would say in 10 year’s time, it will be normal. Just like it’s normal to have a written abstract for your paper, I think it will be normal to have a video abstract.

Michael (00:20:54)
And you can imagine what conferences will be like in 10 year’s time when everyone has video as part of their presentations. So I’m very excited about that trend and very much looking forward to seeing where it’s going.
And where this podcast is going is towards the rapid fire questions.
That was a terrible segue, wasn’t it?

Jen (00:21:17)
I’ve, I’ve heard you do better Michael.
But yeah Tullio, we like to end us with a couple of quick, very quick questions and answers before we let you go.

Michael (00:21:28)
Yeah. Before we let you go Tulio, we have some quick rapid fire questions.

Michael ((00:21:38))
First question that we’d like to ask you.
If you had to pick an alternative career to what you’re doing now, what would it be?

Tullio (00:21:48)
Being a a surfer in Hawaii, living on the beach.

Jen (00:21:53)
That sounds so good.

Tullio (00:21:56)
Yeah, that sounds good. However, to be fair, I have a plan for the future. So I’m thinking I might not be doing this forever. But I would like to go back into the environmental field and perhaps start my own NGO or some climate solution business being carbon credits or whatever, I still don’t know.
But you know, let’s say a 10 year horizon, I would like to go into that. Because it’s really the most pressing problem we’ve got on this world. Right now we’re partially working on that problem by helping researchers communicate these sort of messages, still works towards that goal.
But in the future, you know, I’m still very much passionate. The marine biologist in me is still there and I’m just in my happy place when I’m in the ocean or near the ocean.

Jen (00:22:54)
We totally went against our own rules, Michael.
That wasn’t rapid fire at all, but it was so interesting that that’s all good.

Jen (00:23:01)
So we just look forward. The next question is then looking back.
So far Tullio, what’s been your proudest professional moment?

Tullio (00:23:08)
Proudest professional moment? Ooh.
Okay, emotionally speaking, so the biggest challenge for me starting this business was self-doubt. Like really taking this massive risk of just wasting years of my life pursuing something that would never work was my biggest fear.
And that fear got smashed when I went to Berlin to pitch Springer Nature for the Launchpad Meetup, it was called. Basically, they invited startups to pitch ideas to improve author services in the scholarly publishing space. You know, this is the you know, top of the industry, of course. And there were some top executives in the room. And I gave my pitch and I won the best pitch prize and it was huge for me.
The morning after when I realized how big that validation was, I cried of joy. I actually cried of joy because it was such a big release. You know, putting years of my life into this endeavor and actually getting it validated from some really important people in the industry. That was huge.
So I would say I’m proud for that and for sticking with it.

Michael (00:24:26)
Yeah, that’s amazing. And sometimes it does take a while for that realisation to sink in. So congratulations.
The next question that I would like to ask is Twitter or Instagram and why?

Tullio (00:24:39)
For academics, I would say definitely Twitter. Instagram is great if you do something very visual. Right now I’m using Instagram personally just to share drone photography because I just happen to be into drones at the moment for hobby reasons.
But no, if you’re an academic, definitely Twitter.
And don’t get too concerned about the mess with Elon Musk and whatnot. I don’t think Twitter is going anywhere. It’s here… I think it’s here to stay.

Jen (00:25:08)
I would say that most academics at this stage are feeling the same way. The community’s there. Let’s not let anyone take it away from us.
Okay Tullio, what’s your favourite science related movie or book or joke?

Tullio (00:25:22)
That’s the Alien.

Michael (00:25:23)
Ok. Yeah.

Jen (00:25:24)
Excellent choice.

Tullio (00:25:26)
Yes, I love that series. And I used to play video games, being the the poor human about to be destroyed. I will turn off the light and …

Michael (00:25:38)
Oh wow, that’s intense.

Tullio (00:25:40)
And they have the most frightening gaming experience ever. But I love it.

Jen (00:24:45)
That’s so good.

Michael (00:25:45)
I don’t think I’d be brave enough to turn off the light for a spooky video game or a horror movie. So hats off to you.
So Tullio, you’ve given us some great advice. And I know you do through your workshops, you teach science communication skills, essentially. I’m curious to ask whether you have a top tip for effective science communication in general.

Tullio (00:26:09)
In general, I read Randy Olsen’s books, learned the ABT template. I think that was the single most valuable bit of knowledge and communication that massively, massively helped me.
Because I’m certain that going back to my first video, the one that won prizes and changed my career trajectory, if it wasn’t for me understanding storytelling and framing it as a story, the animation alone would not have really cut it. You need both.
If the story sucks, no amount of fancy animation can save it. Story is really the foundation. And then you build on that foundation with visual media. But, so learn what storytelling really is and I think Randy is the person that is best at explaining it.

Jen (00:27:04)
We definitely won’t argue with you, Tullio. We teach the ABT to all of our students because we think it’s such an effective tool. So completely agree with you.
And anyone who hasn’t already paused this podcast to go and look at your website, go and Google “Animate your science” and just have a look at some examples of the sort of storytelling that Tullio is talking about. And just we can all think, pause and think about ways we can more effectively convey our own stories using visual images as well as storytelling.
So thank you again so much for making time for us today, Tullio. It’s just wonderful to catch up with you. And congratulations again on everything that you and your team are achieving.

Tullio (00:27:36)
Thank you. Thank you. It was a bit of an experiment but it seems to have worked so…

Jen (00:27:41)
Those are the best experiments, right?

Michael (00:27:44)
Oh, that’s excellent.

Tullio (00:27:46)
It is.
Well, thank you so much for having me.
It’s been a great, great fun and great pleasure. And honoured to be here.

Michael (00:27:50)
It’s a pleasure. Thank you so much, Tullio.

Michael (00:28:16)
Thanks for listening and thanks also to our wonderful production team, Stephanie Wong and Steven Tang for making these episodes happen behind the scenes. And thanks also to you, our listeners, for your support.
If you are enjoying these episodes, you can help spread the word by telling a friend about Let’s Talk SciComm or even sharing one of our episodes. But that’s all for this week. We’ll be back in your feed next Tuesday. See you then.