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

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