Meet Landmark Stories – the documentary team telling the stories behind the science

Meet Landmark Stories – the documentary team telling the stories behind the science

By Rosemary BrandtCollege of Agriculture and Life Sciences
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John Casamasa, co-producer of "Poop Doesn't Lie," looks through a camera while on location in Yuma.
John Casamasa, co-producer of "Poop Doesn't Lie," looks through a camera while on location in Yuma.
Ian Pepper, Regents Professor of environmental science and director of the Water and Energy Sustainable Technology Center
Ian Pepper, Regents Professor of environmental science and director of the Water and Energy Sustainable Technology Center
"Poop Doesn't Lie" spotlights the role of wastewater testing in the fight against COVID-19.
"Poop Doesn't Lie" spotlights the role of wastewater testing in the fight against COVID-19.
Sandra Westdahl, lead producer for Landmark Stories
Sandra Westdahl, lead producer for Landmark Stories
The award-winning Landmark Stories team is made up of two producers and a sound specialist.
The award-winning Landmark Stories team is made up of two producers and a sound specialist.
John Casamasa, co-producer of "Poop Doesn't Lie" and videographer for Arizona Arts
John Casamasa, co-producer of "Poop Doesn't Lie" and videographer for Arizona Arts
Mitch Riley, senior producer for Landmark Stories
Mitch Riley, senior producer for Landmark Stories

Some people may be surprised to learn the University is home to an award-winning documentary team.  And while Landmark Stories is a small team – two producers and a sound specialist – it tells big stories.

The team's vision is to produce cinematic, character-driven, short- and long-form documentaries that bring the world closer together and closer to science.

"We have the unique opportunity to showcase the real impact that scientists and their research have in Arizona and beyond," said Sandra Westdahl, lead producer for Landmark Stories.

The documentary team is a program of the Arizona Experiment Station's Communications and Cyber Technology lab. Established through the Hatch Act, the state's Experiment Station system is administered by the University and provides services and infrastructure to foster and support research, instruction and educational outreach.

"A lot of what we do is community building, both at the University of Arizona and the community we live in," said Mitch Riley, senior producer for Landmark Stories. "The great thing about being at a land-grant university is our focus here is not just the pursuit of knowledge or science, but it's about really having an impact beyond our walls. More specifically, in the communities we share this land with."

Both Westdahl and Riley came to Landmark Stories from Arizona Public Media, bringing with them numerous honors – including regional Emmys and Edward R. Murrow Awards – as well as a commitment to journalistic storytelling and cinematic filmmaking.

Westdahl, who is also a cinematographer and editor, leads the creative vision for Landmark Stories and is the driving force behind what it is today.

"Something that sets Landmark Stories apart from traditional science reporting is our focus on the scientists and their personal journeys," Westdahl said. "We join them in the field, in the labs and in their homes. We go behind the science to reveal the real people who are tackling some of the biggest challenges we face."

Too often, science gets boiled down to the research itself "without pulling back the curtain to see the people pursuing this knowledge," Riley said. "It's important that we tell these stories in this visual format, through documentary filmmaking, because it allows the viewer to truly see the journey to discovery and the real diversity of people in the scientific community."

Landmark Stories' forthcoming projects include a long-form documentary on groundwater contamination on Tucson's south side and one University researcher's efforts to document community voices in the fight for environmental justice, as well as a short feature on wildlife conservation efforts in the borderlands.

'Poop Doesn't Lie'

As many on campus pivoted and expanded their roles during the COVID-19 pandemic, the same was true for Landmark Stories, which provided video support services for the University and helped produce virtual convocation ceremonies for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

The team is now refocused on sharing untold stories about the scientists behind the latest breakthroughs and the communities they serve. Its latest film looks at wastewater-based epidemiology, which got its start on the University's main campus and expanded into a global public health tool. The film, "Poop Doesn't Lie," follows Ian Pepper, Regents Professor of environmental science, director of the Water and Energy Sustainable Technology Center and member of the BIO5 Institute, and wastewater testing's role in the fight against COVID-19.

When COVID-19 cases first began to appear in North America, Pepper had a big idea: What if he could use wastewater to track the spread of the virus in communities across the United States?

An environmental microbiologist in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Pepper has used wastewater to detect viruses in the environment for 25 years. As the number of COVID-19 cases quickly rose in cities across the country, he realized his research could fill an important gap in public health officials' data – the prevalence of potential asymptomatic cases in any given community.

"Poop doesn't lie," Pepper often says. If someone is sick, symptoms or not, they shed the virus in their waste, he explained.

Testing a community's wastewater could provide a clearer picture of the true spread of the virus, show whether cases were increasing or decreasing, and help public health officials better direct resources.

Within months of the pandemic's onset, Pepper and his research team at the Water and Energy Sustainable Technology Center were supporting COVID-19 wastewater testing in nearly 20 cities across North America, including Los Angeles, New York and Seattle.

The film picks up the story in the fall of 2020, shortly after Pepper and his team helped the University prevent an outbreak on campus before it happened, and follows his research to Yuma, Arizona.

Nicknamed America's Salad Bowl, Yuma is the No. 1 producer of the nation's leafy greens, such as romaine lettuce, spinach and kale, during the winter months. Hoping to avoid the outbreaks that plagued the meatpacking industry, growers and the Yuma community banded together to bring Pepper's research to Yuma County. Using wastewater epidemiology as a warning system, the county was able to continue providing produce to consumers across the country.

Today, following Pepper's lead, more than 250 universities and 64 countries have established their own wastewater monitoring programs.

"I felt like it was an important story to tell. It's not just about wastewater-based epidemiology, it's about the community. It's about the people that Ian helped, through his research and his mentorship," said John Casamasa, who co-produced the film and now works as a videographer for Arizona Arts.

"This film illustrates the power of science and the impact that our researchers have in Arizona communities and beyond. They are really making the world a better place," said Westdahl, who shot some of the film's footage. "This is just one of many documentaries we've been working on. We have a number of future projects that we can't wait to share."

You can watch the documentary below.

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