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Alumni Couple Collaborates on Award Winning Films

Maya Laurinaitis (second from the left) with crew on the beach

By Karen Louden Allanach
Jerry Drake and Maya Laurinaitis are not only George Mason alumni but also a married couple and an award-winning filmmaking team. Projects have taken them to many locations, from remote islands and developing countries to football stadiums and museums.

Laurinaitis, an associate producer with National Geographic Television, received her M.A.I.S. in 1998. She says the M.A.I.S. provided a unique opportunity to combine her interests in biology, geography, and film. "The program enabled me to move into the field of filmmaking." She pursued the degree in an effort to make the transition from photo editor to filmmaker. "I was really impressed with the level of education I received in my master's program," Laurinaitis says. "I found it quite challenging and rewarding."

Drake, currently a doctoral student in the Graduate School of Education, received his master's degree in education in 1995. "Speaking as an adult student, the university and faculty have reached out and showed a lot of interest in me," Drake says. "I've had the opportunity to work with some of the most talented educators," he added.

Drake is currently an instructional technologist and faculty development specialist in George Mason's Instructional Resource Center, working with faculty members to help them integrate information technology into their teaching.

The couple met 14 years ago while working for a production company in Washington, D.C. Since then, they have produced 15 documentary-based projects for various clients, including the Smithsonian, Library of Congress, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Washington Redskins.

Laurinaitis's master's thesis film, Vanishing Sea Turtles of Baha, took the duo on a two-week seacoast expedition with scientists to investigate the livelihood of the endangered sea turtle. "We don't know what happens when a species disappears," Drake says. "It's important to understand these animals." "We had very challenging conditions," Laurinaitis says. Drake contracted dysentery, the group had no running water or electricity during the hot August trip in 1997, and not a turtle was sighted until the second week of filming. "Things fell into place the second week we were there," she says. "Jerry did some really incredible videography."

The trip paid off, as an edited version of her thesis was aired on National Geographic Television in June 1998 and has been rebroadcast several times since. The video also won a CINE (Council of International Nontheatrical Events) award and an award from the International Columbus Film and Video Festival.

"We've been very fortunate in our travels," Drake says. "It's a profession that requires you to always be in a 'heads-up' mode," he says. "In the field, you don't want to be too intrusive into the lives of your subjects. The trick is to constantly be scanning to see what's going on. You have to be 'hyperaware,' because you just get one chance to get it on tape."

The couple explains that any single documentary could take a year to 18 months to develop from idea to finished project. "You give up your weekends, evenings, and annual leave to do shoots," Laurinaitis says.

Drake, along with Rita Ailinger, a professor in George Mason's College of Nursing and Health Science, was named a 1999 Media Award winner by Sigma Theta Tau International, a society dedicated to improving nursing scholarship. The documentary Common People, Uncommon Lives resulted from a 10-day trip to Managua, Nicaragua, in January 1999. The video detailed a group of nursing students traveling to Managua as part of the community health nursing experience.

"Working with those students and Rita made me proud to be a part of this university," Drake says. For the trip, students spend two weeks in an impoverished settlement in Nicaragua and make home visits to offer medical help to assigned families. The video shows the challenges, such as language barriers and lack of supplies, as well as opportunities faced by the students, including teaching new mothers how to care for their babies.

"We were in some of the poorest neighborhoods, and the conditions are very sad, but the people have a lot of pride," Drake says. "It was a real eye opener." While thinking ahead to the next big project, Laurinaitis and Drake never forget that it was their education that helped launch their careers in the right direction.

"There are many paths to the field," he says. "But your chances are better with a formal education to get you started," she adds.

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