I draw to learn the way life perpetuates itself, moves, and holds itself in space.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Making Science and Art in Nashville

The Island, 2009

It took me about a year, but I've found the balance I want to make in my life here in Nashville- a potpourri of science, art, and writing.

First, last week I walked into Gallery F at the Scarritt Bennett Center and had a great talk with their gallery director Sabine Schlunk, who invited me to be an Artist-In-Residence. I'm delighted. In exchange for studio space right near Dragon Park, (my favorite spot for a mid-day lie in the grass) I get to work in their cozy coffee shop. Sabine has a good eye, and is putting together some of the best contemporary shows in Nashville. I especially like the gallery's emphasis on "outsider art", if you even buy into that concept, and their representation of artists that perhaps might not be in orbit in the gallery world. I think this gallery really stands out in Nashville. I am pleased to be involved.

Mitote, October 2010

Second, I met with Kevin Seale, who's in charge of the Systems Biology and BioEngineering Undergraduate Research Experience at Vanderbilt, a rare gem of an interdisciplinary center that includes scientists working in disciplines including engineering, physics, mathematics, and biology, all trying to understand how the basic unit of life works. Essentially, Cliff's notes, they build little chips that trap cells and give them various inputs in order to understand exactly how the cell works, because we still don't really know. It was amazing to talk to a scientist with such an interdisciplinary bent. What would he say to public audiences given the chance? Eat well and exercise, it can change your health. He owns and runs a farm in the highly contested area of Nashville called Bell's Bend, is obsessed with getting fresh produce to the working poor, and is interested in poking around at the point where faith meets science. We have big plans. I'm going to meet with him and the lab director, John Wikswo, next week, to talk about how to tell the story of their lab and its mighty slew of characters in the best way. I think it will be a perfect case study for how to merge disciplines in science, and by telling it, to step across the invisible line between academia and the public.

Flight Machine, Summer 2007

And third, I've been accepted to be the local Nashville "Science News Expert" on examiner.com. I'll be posting 3-4 articles a week detailing news on science in Nashville, a topic I feel has a huge dearth going on- I can't find a darn thing to please my palate at the Tennessean or City Paper, so I suppose I'll have to do it myself. Stay tuned! I get paid in proportion to my subscribers, so please sign up!

Bruni and Babarit, Fall 2009 and 2010

Thursday, October 14, 2010


I'm thinking a lot this week about framing, as I enter the second week of a Science Communication "Virtual Internship" with the Scientists and Engineers for America. The readings this week have exposed me to a reality that I had been, I realize as I read, deliberately blinding myself to: that a lot of thought needs to go into how science communicators talk to the public about science, and part of that involves a blurry boundary between "selling" and "informing". What I like about what I'm reading is that it's exposing me to the pretentiousness of an assumption I'd been making, that if only we informed the ignorant, poorly educated public more effectively and thoroughly about science, then they'd smarten up and start wanting evolution taught in schools and get off the grid ASAP. Anna Kinzig, in an article in Seed Magazine from May 2009, presents the luxury of scientist's own opinioning perfectly: "My own personal opinion is that we (scientists) — writing and thinking in our robust homes, from a room devoted exclusively to study, fueled by three square meals a day produced in another room devoted exclusively to cooking — tend to think more negatively about humans and their impact on the nature we so love. People are apart from nature. They are “shortsighted” and they “destroy” environments and their behaviors need to be controlled."

It's been an interesting experience to be a scientist in the South, because I had forgotten, living in New England on a liberal campus, that not everybody takes climate change and evolution as givens. I had made the mistake of assuming that the south (note the massive generalization I make, which I too take with a grain of salt) is skeptical because of a disproportionate amount of poverty and the condition of being ten or so years behind the north, perhaps dating back to the Civil War. None of this is any indicator of intelligence; I'm just saying I had previously thought that a public engaged and passionate about science was merely a matter of those immersed in the science telling those not immersed about it, and they'd hop on the bandwagon. I now realize, not everybody cares about the environment, and the populations that lack access to science information aren't helped by current efforts at communicating science. What I'm learning as I read eye-opening articles like Nisbet and Schuele's piece in the American Journal of Botany from October of last year, called "What's Next for Science Communication", is that (of course!) people who are interested in science and take a vested interest in science policy debates in their communities are already rather highly informed, and that social values and religiosity cannot be underestimated in their impact on how science information is filtered by public audiences. My job, therefore, as a science communicator, will be to try to access people behind the veils of varying degrees of education, religious beliefs, and socio-economic status. The point is not necessarily spin, but, I'm delighted to realize, a respect for "storytelling as a foundation for the human community", as Clark Miller puts it. I'm a combination of resistant, not surprised, and excited that I have the task of "framing" science, honoring the utter subjectivity of what I formerly considered "facts." Some of the recommendations at the end of the article included using humor and satire in television programming and museum exhibit content about science, as well as using local television to access audiences, both of which have occurred to me as projects to tackle in the past. I wonder how to transform nerdy lab scientist-to-scientist jokes into the kind of knee-slapping stuff they feature on 30 Rock without being too offensive, as I'm inclined to do...

For now, I wanted to share two relatively non-partisan delights in the recent news. The best part about them, as a student in science communication realizing how much I've yet to learn in order to teach, is that they're just pictures!

One is a slide show from the recent NYTimes article on the Census of Marine Life. I've had the privilege over the last several years of working with many scientists involved in this noble collaboration. If you can handle a few paragraphs, it's a fascinating read, and also a great time-killer to check out the images amassed. Who says the ocean is a desert? I love underwater optics! http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2010/10/04/science/20101005-marinecensus.html

Also, last week's Time Magazine featured the media's favorite lady oceanographer, a true genius self-promoter, Sylvia Earle, and a great slide show on ocean flora and fauna. http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,2020841_2192138,00.html

We'll tackle the words behind the images next week...Sigh.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

UCSC Science Illustration

I've recently returned to Nashville from Santa Cruz, California, where I took two courses in science illustration. The Science Illustration Program was part of the Science Communication department at UCSC, which also includes a Science Writing program, but the Illustration program has recently moved down to CSU Monterey Bay, where it resides during the school term and, after this summer, where the summer courses will also be held.

I studied digital illustration and marine science illustration with Amadeo Bachar, who's a truly freakishly gifted illustrator. See his work at his site, abachar.com. It's a treat. Especially check out the time-lapsed video of him making a painting. The actual painting took seventeen hours to complete.

One of the things I enjoyed about the digital illustration class is that it made the wall of lovely web world that I associate with computers become a movable feast to me- I now feel like I can alter, change, color, and amplify my own images on the computer, and generate truly painterly stuff with the incredible technology of Illustrator and Photoshop. I'm delighted to have moved out of the analog-girl-in-a-digital-world stubbornness, and into a world where what I do with my hand on paper, and with my stylus on computer, can be interchangeable. There's a lot more room for experimentation when you can hit Command Z and your last stroke of paint disappears.

One thing I loved about the Marine Science Illustration class, which was basically a technical watercolor course, was the intimacy I got to have with animals in a very different way than when I'm bent over a lab bench or studying their reproductive habits. It's a respectable science in its own right, to figure out not only how to render the animal artistically such that its forms and features and their functions make sense in regard to the whole image, but to also understand what the interaction between paint and water, and paint and paper, will do to an audience's understanding of how an animal works. I had to think about how a dolphin swims, and honor the perfection of their curves as best I could by hand (scanning the image and altering the curve in Illustrator did it more justice.) I thought about the placement of each organ as the body grew across the page, how they breathed, how their eyes were positioned and why. I got to spend more time thinking about dolphins than I have in a long time. It reminded me of the innocence and attention with which I approached my love for them in childhood.

I scanned my Pacific White Sided Dolphin into the computer and tried to render its echolocation structures digitally. This is my rough draft. I'm so pleased to have gotten a crash course in digital drawing, and to have learned new watercolor techniques. The staff at the SciIll Program are really wonderful and have offered to be soundboards for my portfolio development throughout the year.

Autopsy of an Anatomist

Inspired by my May visit to the collection of Sir John Hunter at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, I made what my good friend Chloe calls a modern illuminated manuscript about Hunter's technique and life. It was published last June in Wag's Revue, an online literary review some friends from Brown have been editing, and they were kind enough to include my work.

Hunter dissected an unprecedented number of cadavers in the course of his career in order to understand, from inside out, how the body worked. He did much to dispel the cloud of myth and superstition surrounding health and sickness. This is the first installment in what will no doubt be a continuing obsession with this eccentric visionary master of morbid anatomy.

Here's the link to my essay in the magazine: http://www.wagsrevue.com/Issue_6/#/137

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Brother's Keeper

One day the zookeeper noticed that the orang-utang was reading two books -- the Bible and Darwin's Origin of Species. In surprise he asked the ape, "Why are you reading both those books"?

"Well," said the orang-utang, "I just wanted to know if I was my brother's keeper or my keeper's brother."

I went for a job interview at the Zoo for the ZooTeen Instructor position. The program is amazing if you're sixteen- teens can volunteer one day a week and learn about how to communicate wildlife information to humans. They stand in front of exhibits and explain the lifestyle and habits of each creature. The position appeared to involve mostly strolling the grounds and making sure teens aren't sexting during their shift.

I got a free tour after the interview with my interviewer, Chris Kline, Director of Onsite Interpretation, and we discussed the various merits and fallbacks of the zoo as an instution. I'm told the amount that visitors ask if zebras lay eggs is staggeringly frequent, so they certainly have an educational job to do. Zoos in their modern iterations are touted as important for conservation, becauase presumably they increase the robustness of species endangered in the wild by providing safe spaces and breeding habitats for them. I believe that zoo people believe in what they're doing, and believe it's for the good of the animals. For example, the chance of white-phase (either Bengal or Siberian) tigers being born in the wild is about 1 in 5,000, as it is caused by a double recessive gene. The Nashville Zoo has a White Bengal tiger. All white tigers in zoos right now originate from an individual captured in the 1950's, therefore despite zoos introducing new genes to prevent inbreeding, it persists and has caused a prevalence of hip dysplasia in many white tiger individuals.

The Nashville Zoo boasts being the topmost breeder of the giant anteater in the country. Anteaters are notoriously difficult to breed, but apparently are mating like rabbits at the zoo here. They also have successful breeding programs for Rhinoceros Hornbills, and are one of only a handful for Clouded Leapords. They also have had success with breeding Puerto Rican Crested Toads and Panamanian Golden Frogs, which are now believed to be extinct in the wild.

At the Schimdt's Guenon habitat, also called a Red Monkey, there is an odd, difficult to see electric grass between the monkeys and the chain link fence to prevent them from reaching their hands out to visitors. Visitors holding hands with monkeys would perhaps cause legal hazards for the zoo. The electric grass shocks their little monkey hands if they try to reach out. The Schmidt's Guenon has huge cheek pouches it can fill with food while foraging and then retire to dine on the food stored in its cheeks. One monkey came close to the grass and played around near it, and I watched it get slightly zinged, remember the infernal electric grass, give it a disdainful look, and retract its hand slightly. The monkey was going to give the electric grass the room it evidently demanded, but little else. How's that for anthropomorphization?! I thought about how we like to assume animals are just like us while at the zoo. A couple of women walked up to the exhibit and began talking about the animals excitedly, projecting a whole bundle of emotions and behaviors on them, even applying humans concepts of beauty to them. Apparently they didn't appreciate the Schmidt's Guenon's looks. For a great article on this concept, see Tom Tyler's essay "If Horses Had Hands" http://www.criminalanimal.org/people/writings/cyberchimp/horses.htm

Next visit I'll check out the elephant habitat, where there apparently is a kind of sponge under the soil so it's cushier for them. Behave!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Big O

Lake Okeechobee is the headwaters of the Everglades, vast and much depleted (read: screwed with by the Army Engineer Corps). Florida is one of the wettest states in the country, and its rainfall keeps Okeechobee productive. Lake Okeechoee sits in the center of the state, and benefits in biodiversity from both two climactic zones in Florida, subtropical and temperate.

I went there on an airboat tour with my family a couple of weeks ago. Being on an airboat is a trip- it's nice to be able to glide over not only the water, but any plant or obstacle that might come into one's path (including alligators), but the noise is not a companion I typically like to take with me on adventures in wild places. Edie Widder says about deep sea subs that they are so loud and intrusive anything they see must be just the slow and the stupid. I had the same thought about airboating, but it was fun like the carnival, so I went along for the ride.

Our guide picked out Julia to use as an example in a little scenario he cooked up about what her life would have been like at the frontier of Florida at the turn of the century: "You're nineteen, you work in a general store, and you've just had a divorce. Some guy comes along and tells you you about this land he has so you go with him and you get here and see this! Pretty soon you have another divorce."

I'm going to bring you with me on a little guided tour of Lake Okeechobee as it was in mid-April. Our lovely guide Mike, a retired high school biology teacher who's grandfather came from Italy to Florida years ago and is a passionate Floridian, informed us that week to week a visit to The Lake can be entirely different, and its riches vary wildly with the seasons. This lucky man's life revolves around watching this lake in all its iterations.

Lake Okeechobee is home to panthers, the West Indian manatee, ibises, bald eagles, river otters, bobcats, black bears, red-winged blackbirds, the Everglade snail, the Blue Heron, to name but a few. It also is home to the federally protected alligator. We got to see some babies that are about a year old and shockingly small given their age- it seems so vulnerable to stay so small for a year! Their mother, after hatching them, doesn't feed her young, but stays with them until the next mating season, which typically begins each April.

These are some adults and a camouflaged baby I challenge you to amid the greenery.

This is bladderwort, a carnivorous plant:

They capture insects by means of bladder-like traps. An aquatic species like the one at right can prey on critters as large as small tadpoles or mosquito larvae. The traps are rather sophisticated. The bladder is "set" by the flower under negative pressure relative to the water surrounding it, so when a creature swims by and brushes up against trigger hairs, the trapdoor opens and the prey and water surrounding it are swept into the bladder trap! Once the bladder is full of water, the door closes. This process takes fifteen thousandths of a second. This is a docile looking killer on the loose.
Between my legs in this dashing shot are a lotus flower, the whiter flower closer to my own flower with a yellow center, and a water lily, the more yellow flower closer to my knees. Lotuses are aquatic perennials, and under favorable conditions their seeds can stay viable and productive for many years. The oldest recorded lotus germination is from a seed 1300 years old, in a dry lakebed in China. Lotuses are hot right now, literally, because a recent study by Dr. Roger S. Seymour and Dr. Paul Schultze-Motel, physiologists at the University of Adelaide in Australia, found that lotus flowers maintained a temperature of 86 degrees Fahrenheit even when surrounding temperatures were 50 degrees. They believe this is for the benefit of their cold-blooded pollinators, and is a breakthrough case in developing studies on heat-producing plants. In both Hindu and Buddhist iconography, the Lotus is an important flower, representing purity of the body, speech and mind, and non-attachment.

Rotten papaya in the tops of trees.
Papaya, also called Paw Paw or Big Melon, has leaves that grow in a spiral pattern. When green, papaya fruit and the tree's latex generate an enzyme useful in tenderizing meat. Its fruit is soft when ripe, like an avocado. It has been cultivated in Mexico since several centuries before the emergence of Mesoamerican classic cultures. It is the first fruit tree to have its genome deciphered.

The plants above are called Water Hemlock, one of the most toxic plants in America. Our guide told us that last year in Florida a young boy made a spit gun from the stem of a water hemlock, and was nearly immediately killed.

Our guide said this osprey had been hanging around this tree quite often, and if it was building a nest, it would be the first osprey nest he'd ever seen in Lake Okeechobee.
Quite a nice bird show:

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Arctic Circle

How Climate Change Affects Prey of Major Commercial Fish
The Arctic Circle 2010

In October I am conducting a study in the Arctic Ocean on plankton that dwell at the ocean’s surface. Gathering more data on these poorly understood creatures is important because zooplankton serve as a key link between primary producers and top predators. An understanding of the effects a change in ice cover might be having on the habitat of surface dwellers in the Arctic might indicate the overall global effects of climate change on the major United States commercial fisheries.

I will conduct my study as a scientific participant in The Arctic Circle, an annual expeditionary residency program open to international artists, architects, innovators, scientists, and educators who seek out areas of collaborative exploration. The 2010 Arctic Circle program will explore the international territory of Svalbard, a mountainous Arctic archipelago just 10 degrees from the North Pole, aboard a scientific research sailing vessel that is specially outfitted to accommodate program-specific needs.

I am seeking funding to support my expedition. Funding will go toward expedition and equipment costs. Each day aboard I plan to conduct a plankton net collection, sampling more gelatinous fragile surface dwellers with jars. I will visually analyze samples durin expedition, identifying species using a microscope that funding will help provide. Post-expedition I plan to continue sample analysis at the lab of Russ Hopcroft, PhD, at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Your support could help me generate a data set to contribute to an ongoing project to understand how climate change will affect the Arctic food chain.

The Arctic Circle Education Program will provide an opportunity for me to engage students in my project from approximately 45 high schools internationally. Outfitted with state-of-the-art satellite communications, The Arctic Circle 2010 vessel will become an extension of the classroom through participatory text and video hosted on the interactive Blog. I am interested in pursuing opportunities to engage students upon my return in informal, innovative educational settings. I will also have the opportunity to exhibit my findings upon return, as The Arctic Circle partners with a number of presenters, including art centers, museums and established galleries in the United States and abroad. These exhibits provide the opportunity for the public to experience thought-provoking work developed at a crossroads of disciplines.

For more information or to lend your support, please contact me: Perrin Roosevelt Ireland, Perrin.Ireland@gmail.com, 203.273.2823

Monday, March 22, 2010

Stomach of Swan

While in London last week I had the opportunity to visit the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London. The museum houses the specimen collection of Sir John Hunter, who was at the forefront of the popularization of surgery in his time. It's no coincidence that my visit there was impacted by my recent reading of Steve Baker's "Picturing the Beast", which discusses the warped-ness with which humans relate to their own myths about animals. His book to me makes real the absence of real autonomous animals in our everyday lives. Baker discusses the invisibility and expendability of laboratory animals, and the collection at the Hunterian Museum, with jar upon jar of two hundred year old slices of animals and human body parts, shows how old our tendency to kill, hack up, and poke at the (by then much-altered) "life" around us.

The museum's collection was acquired during the age of the Great Empire, when the British roamed the world and partook of all its earthly delights at their whim, including harvesting and "naming" specimens previously unknown to England. This is why museums of that era, including the Natural History Museum, tend to have mostly tropical collections. As I sat drawing two preparations of the stomach of a swan I began to ask myself, what has this got to do with the animal in motion? What kind of a way is this to learn the world? I couldn't help but feel that I was partaking in the violation of a three hundred year old ostrich as I studied its preserved rectum. How might it be possible for humans to relate to creatures with an entirely different code for living without destroying them first? I am also intrigued by the relationship at the time between science and trade- most of the specimens were acquired on voyages of mercantile intent, or at least by traveling along routes initially forged for trade purposes. What is the appropriate cost of science? There is a clear precedent of humans valuing the advancement of medicine if it requires the sacrifice of a walrus or two. But as co-citizens, is that really our choice to make? This is a never-ending question to me.

I did appreciate the preserved specimens of surgical anomalies- the skull of a young boy with a second imperfect skull attached to its anterior fontanelle, the head and neck of a goose showing a benign fatty tumor below the jaw. Such delights! To his credit, John Hunter conducted some of the most successful surgeries of his time because of his comparative anatomy collection. For example, in 1785 he successfully operated on a condition called popliteal aneurysm, a dilation of the artery behind the knee, apparently a commonly fatal situation back then. Hunter figured out to tie the femoral artery in the thigh, thus allowing smaller blood vessels to enlarge and provide an alternative blood supply, because he had observed collateral circulation in animals and humans. Hunter's exposure to many different bodies allowed him to make advances in surgery based more on practical evidence and experience than the conjecture and mythology often applied to medicine at the time.
The experience was very visually and morbidly pleasing to a person of my sometimes-creepy sentiment, and I highly recommend it to the London visitor, as it is thought provoking, informative, and very thorough. The collection housed at the Hunterian Museum is comprised of 3,000 specimens, but the guides are quick to mention this is only one third of the pre-war collection. If only because he was a nut dedicated to learning at any cost, John Hunter's legacy is worth our time.

Friday, March 5, 2010


Welcome Aboard Small And Tender Craft, the little research vessel I've fashioned to navigate the seas of this luscious life. My goal is to show you how I learn about science, which is to draw it.

My pen and ink explications of science are the love children of graphic novels and dissection manuals. They explore the technicalities and history of image-capturing instrumentation, the first creature encountered with a new underwater innovation, the personalities on a research vessel. There is such drama in the research experience. I discuss the role research plays in the human relationship to other creatures via illustration with the intent to make scientific concepts accessible to a general audience that largely believes itself science illiterate.

I yearn for the days of yore when everybody was an amateur naturalist, and the world was any illustrator’s oyster. People discovered how things worked by drawing what they found. I drew my way through my biology degree at Brown University.

My goal is to invite the lay audience to reclaim science as an intimate practice of embracing the world. I am for a people’s science. In my graphic stories I’m interested in illustrating that there are many ways to do things besides the ways we do them, and they’re all perfectly acceptable. I’m interested in the pause a microscope experience of a cnidarian elicits- can there be an existence with no conception of individuality? What is the relationship like between a full-grown female and an egg-sized male? My calling is to illuminate, to represent the voiceless, minute, creative explosions of life that guide me to continue expanding my perspective.

On the site, you'll get to see the wonders of oozing organisms as I see them: an inattentive child flitting to this or that new fascination. Next week we'll go to London, to the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, and the History of Surgery Museum.