Chemist turned video producer for the U.S. Chemical Safety Board
Profile: Shauna Lawhorne, chemist (B.A. 2002), video producer and editor
Shauna Lawhorne loves chemistry. She also loves producing videos.
Shauna has found a way to merge these two seemingly incompatible interests: She is a video producer and editor for Sandy Gilmour Communications, a public affairs contractor for the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB).
Each chemical safety video Shauna helps produce tells the story of a major chemical accident using both film and computer animations. The goal is to inform the public and prevent future accidents from occurring.
“The videos are an important and successful means of communicating ‘lessons learned’ by the CSB to people,” Shauna explained.
Check out some of their award-winning videos here.
Day to day, you can find Shauna working on any one of the many aspects of video production: reading reports written by CSB investigators, creating an outline of what to include in the video, working with coworkers to write a script, fact-checking, or video editing.
The final product is a cohesive story, complete with narration, music, and often including footage and photos of the incident and interviews with CSB investigators. The entire process can take up to several months.
Shauna’s background makes her ideally suited for her current job. She graduated from Emory University in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. She switched into chemistry from physics after taking organic chemistry and finding out “how widespread the applications of chemistry are in our everyday lives.”
During her undergrad years, Shauna also took several film classes in addition to her chemistry load. She had been passionate about making films ever since high school, where she studied media production for four years and worked on her school’s video yearbook and other short video projects.
She went on to study film and electronic media at American University’s School of Communication in Washington, DC.
“Originally, I hoped to combine chemistry and media in a different way – by producing children’s educational programming about science. I had a dream of creating a show that would get young girls excited about chemistry,” she said.
But during her Master’s program, Shauna learned about social documentary and let her career follow that path for four years as she took her first video production job as an associate producer and editor for a small documentary production company that primarily made “mission” videos for socially conscious non-profit organizations in the DC area.
In 2009, Shauna landed her current job with Sandy Gilmour Communications, making videos for the Chemical Safety Board.
“It was almost too good to be true,” she said. “Here was a position combining every interest – chemistry, film, and social impact. I wish I could say that I carefully planned it, but in many ways I just got lucky!”
But it can be challenging at times, especially when Shauna’s assignment calls for her to interact directly with victims or family members of the victims of chemical accidents.
“However, it is satisfying to know that the videos are providing victims and families an outlet to express their concerns, and that we are working together to help prevent these tragedies from affecting others,” she said.
Storytelling and listening skills are must-haves for a successful video producer. In addition, it helps to be willing to ask questions, think analytically, and organize the components of a story in a logical, cohesive way. And couple all of that with creativity, since “there is also an art and rhythm to it as well,” Shauna said.
While a science degree isn’t essential for her job, Shauna says: “I like to think that it gives me an edge when it comes to understanding the material and interpreting it through video for the public.”
To other like-minded chemists who may be interested in a video production career, Shauna’s advice is: Buy a small camera and just start shooting. With all the technology out there, it’s not hard for novices to start getting experience and broadcasting themselves on YouTube.
“There are tons of internships in the field to get more professional experience and cut your teeth,” she said. “And read books about film theory, because it is so important to understand those concepts and how to apply them to your work.”
As far as job availability goes: it really depends on what type of video production you want to do.
“My observation is that there are probably more people searching for staff positions than actually exist,” Shauna said. “But many people make great careers freelancing. And I think there is definitely room for growth.”
So, yes, Shauna is very happy with the ways things have turned out for her career.
“The best part of my job is the notion that I am playing a part in helping to communicate information to companies that use potentially hazardous chemicals and to the public that will save lives,” she said.
“Everyone at the CSB is committed to the mission of accident prevention and it is very rewarding to work with such passionate and committed individuals.”