ECO Art + Science: Photographs + Blog of Ecologist Margaret Siple

This week’s ECO Art + Science series post features ecologist and photographer Margaret Siple who is currently a graduate student at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa on the island of Oahu. Her graduate research is based out of the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology, which is on Moku o Lo’e (a two-minute boat ride from Oahu). Margaret (who also goes by Megsie) is the creator of the science blog Fishpond Fever (http://www.fishpondfever.wordpress.com), which presents her ecological research on He’eia fishpond through engaging writing, eloquent photography and some beautiful insight into Hawaiian culture. Hawaiian fishponds are traditional aquaculture systems that consist of a porous stone wall surrounding a natural bay that let small fish enter but trap them as they grow larger. I was really excited to hear from Megsie after my first round of outreach to the Ecolog listserv. She currently studies Hawaiian ecology; I used to study Hawaiian ecology. I wanted (once upon a time) to study at UH Mānoa for graduate school, and she actually does this! She uses stable isotopes to study food webs; I also use stable isotopes to study food webs! She likes finding creative ways to help communicate her science, and so do I! I had a lot of fun interacting with her to create this post, and I hope you enjoy her work as much as I do.

Photograph by Margaret Siple.

[biocreativity] Welcome to the biocreativity blog, Megsie! Why don’t you start by telling us about the work you do. 

[MS] I study food webs, which means I spend some of my time characterizing communities (counting and identifying invertebrates, for example) and some of my time using stable isotopes as natural tracers to follow carbon and nitrogen through all the eaters and the eaten [for those who are unfamiliar, Megsie provides a good explanation of how stable isotope analysis works here].

Much of the reason I chose my field is because I love the kind of people that do this work. I love doing a job that is intellectually stimulating, ecologically important, and of course, really fun to share with other people. I also love writing grants.

An assortment of worms and amphipods found in sediment cores from mangrove removal areas. The plant fragments are mangrove rhizome fibers. Photograph and caption text by Margaret Siple.

As for what brings me joy on a daily basis, I really like working in the lab. I have some algae isolation protocols that are really fun, and every time I sort a core I find something I’ve never seen before. Stable isotopes are SO fun to work with, and such a powerful tool. And there’s nothing more satisfying than getting a code to work in MatLab or R [statistics programs]. I live for those days.

There are other things I love doing, somewhat unrelated to science + art: I play the oboe in the Oahu Civic Orchestra and the University of Hawai’i Symphony, and I have to say that music has always been a great love of mine.

[biocreativity] Do you have a website, blog, facebook page, twitter account, etc. that you’d like the biocreativity readers to know about?

[MS] Totally. I would love if people read and/or subscribed to my blog, Fishpond Fever. I don’t post often, but when I do, I try to make the posts interesting, accessible, and visually interesting.

A sponge raft found drifting along the bottom of He'eia fishpond. Composed of Gracilaria and the orange sponge Mycale sp., the piece was weighed down with sediment and tiny organisms living inside. The contents included two brittle stars, several polychaete worms, a few amphipods, and what look like juvenile tunicates. Photograph and caption text by Margaret Siple

[biocreativity] I see you also have a nice photostream on Flickr featuring marine invertebrates. Megsie, where do you see yourself on the biocreativity spectrum? Is your primary training in art or science, or both?

[MS]  My primary training is in science. My interests in marine ecology began in high school, but I started college wanting to become an oncologist. After years of training in medical labs, I started doing some molecular and ecological work for a lab at the University of Chicago, then landed a job at the Field Museum in Chicago, studying coral bleaching using methods developed for studying human tumors. What an exciting place to be, at the intersection of human and ecological heath! It was a really wonderful opportunity. The technology we used was incredibly complex, so we had to rely on good schematics to show people what we were doing and why it mattered.

Though I am a scientist by training, I was raised amongst artists: My mother, though a technical writer by trade, takes incredible photographs and specializes in silver palladium prints. My sister and brother are an art historian and artist, respectively, so I have had a lot of opportunities to learn from them. They’re so creative, and have taught me much of what I know about art and images. Brother and sister also venture into the realm of ecology every now and then: my sister helped design my research lab’s t-shirt, and my brother’s thesis exhibit included a series of living-art terrariums.

In celebration of the 4th of July, Megsie posted this photo of a Sternapsid worm whose body is reminiscent of a firecracker. The worm was found in mangrove sediments from He'eia fishpond. Photograph by Margaret Siple.

[biocreativity] The biocreativity blog readers might be interested to see some of your family’s artwork – how can they learn more?

[MS] My brother has a website portfolio: www.paulsiple.com. My sister is Director of Education at the Photo Center (www.pcnw.org). My dad, who makes furniture, has a site where he talks about the material and inspiration he uses. Unfortunately my mom doesn’t have a website. She keeps her genius on the down-low.

[biocreativity] How do you view the interaction of arts and sciences? 

[MS] This is a tough question. When I say “art” I really mean “images,” and I don’t think the two are synonymous. I view images mostly as a vehicle for teaching science. Regardless of our backgrounds, we humans respond very strongly to what we see. Images are important to us. I don’t think I really know much at all about art, but I understand that you can communicate with people really successfully if you show them something they like to look at.

I think the other thing that makes art in science important is that it reminds us of the sense of wonder about the systems we live in and work with. Nature is so incredibly beautiful, so elegant, and so complex. When you show someone an equation describing how light moves through a medium, the complexity intimidates them. I think art about science can inspire people to value complexity, and experience it in a new way.

[biocreativity] Well said! Tell us more about what inspired you to start your blog, Fishpond Fever

He'eia fishpond. Photograph by Michael Walters via Flickr.

I work at a site, He’eia fishpond, that is extremely important for Hawaiians. I interact with the fishpond managers on a daily basis, but they know much more about their system than I do, so my input as a researcher is not always as valuable as my input as an observer. Traditionally, natural resources have been managed with massive collections of experiential data, passed down through kupuna [elders] to future generations. I wanted to be able to add to local knowledge with my experiences, and what better way to do this than with pictures, anecdotes, and accounts. It was also a way to make my research transparent to managers and to the public.

I have always loved writing, so a research blog was kind of a no-brainer. Also, blogs can be really helpful in graduate school: they provide you with a log of what you’ve done and how your thought process has changed over time, and they give you a space in which you can really mull things over. I process things by writing about them. Communicating scientific methods and theories to the public is also great practice for, well, the rest of my life.

[biocreativity]  I love the way you include so much about Hawaiian culture in your blog – because really, your work can’t easily be separated from it. In particular, I really enjoyed your post from the Ecological Society of America meeting in Austin about the intersection of local Hawaiian knowledge systems and Western scientific methodologies. Can you tell us more about your ecological work? 

[MS] I am approaching one question through two studies: one is a predator exclusion experiment that will show how invasive mangroves are changing community structure, and the second is a stable isotope project to determine whether an invasive alga provides a source of carbon for animals (directly or indirectly) in a native Hawaiian fishpond. These are related questions: they both focus on structure-forming species and the ability of these species to affect changes in the way other organisms interact.

These structure-forming species are often called “ecosystem engineers,” but that term can be misused. Clive Jones, who coined the term, defines an ecosystem engineer as an organism that create or modify physical habitat. He specified in his definition that engineer species modulate the availability of resources other than themselves. You can see how broadly this could be interpreted. I use the term “structure-forming” to make sure people know that I am talking about autogenic ecosystem engineers whose main resource contribution is somehow related to their physical structure.

Deforested mangrove has been grown over by the indigenous 'akulikuli. Dead mangrove leaves float in the water nearby. Photograph by Margaret Siple.

[biocreativity] I love how you’re able to explain your work in very down-to-earth terms, and that you also have a glossary on your blog explaining the more scientific vocabulary in your posts. What is the most important thing that you want others to know about your work?

[MS]  A) Hawaiian fishponds are a remarkably effective, low-impact solution to the sustainable fisheries problem, in coastal communities. I wish the whole world knew about them.

B) It is important to look at species not just as actors against a backdrop of their physical environment, but as agents of biogeochemical change, and as habitats in and of themselves. The idea of the “ecosystem” is so much more plastic than people probably realize.

[biocreativity] What is the most common question or comment you get about your work?

[MS] People often end up asking me more questions about fishponds than about ecology. They usually ask how many functioning Hawaiian fishponds are around Hawaii. There are about four currently being restored on Oahu, but at one time there were at least 500 in the Hawaiian Islands. Molokai still has about 60 of them. You can see them all if you fly over– it’s incredible.

People also always ask me “how do you study a food web?” This is a relevant question because a real food web has so many connections in it that it seems impossible to separate any of them. That’s because if you want to characterize a few links, you have to choose the important ones. A lot of food web ecology focuses on a few important links. People also use models a lot. I use stable isotopes and exclusion experiments, and I’ll use those both in models.

Where green world and brown world collide: mats of benthic microalgae are glued together with detritus, but fish eat the mats indiscriminantly, obtaining nutrients from both detritus and microalgae. Photograph and caption text by Margaret Siple.

[biocreativity] Megsie, can you explain what you mean by models and how you use them in your work?

[MS] Well, we use models all the time, whether or not we call them that. Our expectations, in daily life, are models. What we see, often, is a model for what we might expect to hear or experience. Everything is a model.

The mathematical models of ecology are like our road maps to the endlessly complex processes in nature. They are often relatively simple mathematical equations that can be solved– this is exciting because a model is an equation which you can solve. This means we can generate testable hypotheses, and if a model works, it can also help us make predictions for the future.

I use a few different models in my work: for my stable isotope work, I use trophic mixing models, which are simply mass-balance equations like we used in chemistry class, applied to stable isotopes. That model is a simple equation, and it helps me estimate percentages of different food sources in an animal’s diet. I also measure changes in community structure, which can be analyzed with statistical tests that are somewhat like a multivariate ANOVA [a type of model which tests for differences within and between groups]. I also use models to estimate density from crab trapping data.

[biocreativity] Megsie, what’s next for you in art + science? Where do you see the Fishpond project going, or what would you like to do next?

[MS] This project is for my graduate degree. I hope, by the time I’ve completed my thesis, that I will have added significantly to the body of knowledge on invasive species, structure-forming species, and mangrove ecology. This is a little ambitious, perhaps, but it keeps me going!

When I am finished, I hope to give back to my own native ecosystem, the coast of the Pacific Northwest. I have always wanted to study fisheries there, and I hope to end up there someday.

Samoan crab (Scylla serrata), a predator associated with mangrove forests in Hawaii and other parts of the Pacific. Though alien species in Hawaii, they are not considered a threatening invasive, because they grow slowly and are a popular fishery. Photograph and caption text by Margaret Siple.

[biocreativity] Let’s talk more about your images. You mention your family members got you into creating images. When did you start? Have you always been into photography or was it something you picked up in grad school to document your work?

[MS] I was one of “those people” in high school and picked up a camera and said, “I’m going to do photography!” What I really meant was, “I like taking pictures.” I have never been good at actual photography. [biocreativity begs to differ here] My mom would always have to help me in the darkroom. But I still like taking pictures. I now use mostly digital photography, because it’s fast and easy and the camera I have is waterproof so I can bring it in the field. Sometimes I’ll use an old medium-format Yashica (the fabulous Mat 124G), but that’s for leisure time.

[biocreativity] Do you have a favorite image you’ve created? (Or, maybe you can’t pick just one).

[MS]  There are two images I’ve taken that I really love. The one with the urchin is probably one of my more complex images– it has hard and soft edges, you can’t really tell whether it’s in or out of the water… the Padina (that whorled algae on the right)  is so beautiful. Look at those concentric rings of calcium carbonate! This picture is a study in structure.

The other one is a lichen community I found on a log. In my work, in ecology and modeling, scale is very important. I like this picture because you can see it on multiple scales. It’s tiny, they’re tiny lichens, but they look like trees. I suppose the shallow depth of field gives it away. But I think that’s cool. For all these pictures, though, I think nature really comes up with the beauty, and I just point my camera at it and press a button. Thanks, nature!


[biocreativity] Do you have any advice for people (maybe other grad students or scientists) who are considering doing more work in the creative realm? A lot of people get trepidatious about it because they think they have no talent or don’t have time. What would you say to them? I often encourage collaboration with very creative people to get started – it sounds like your family has been very helpful in that regard.

[MS] A lot of people in research or science think that you are either “artsy” or you aren’t. Oh, please! Everyone knows what they like to see. You just need some tools and some practice. And you need to care. It helps to have artistic outlets in your research.

I think people in science sometimes think of pictures and art as something “soft” and that research is hard and logical– they think there is some kind of trade-off between artistry and practicality. I say, “Au contraire“. Nothing is more practical than a well-placed, well-composed image.

[biocreativity] Do you plan out what images you need for a project (say, one of your grad projects) or are you just always taking shots no matter what? Any tips for other scientists on how to end up with the images you want after a project is complete?

[MS] Yikes. No idea. My advice would be to just take tons of pictures all the time. I learned this from my first PI. She made us take hundreds of pictures of Symbiodinium and coral skeletons. They ended up being very helpful when we were writing papers and proposals and giving talks.

[biocreativity] What type of equipment do you use? Do you do much post-processing on your images or do you just use them raw?

[MS] I use a Canon PowerShot D10– the shock-proof, waterproof one. It’s the only thing I trust in my muddy, salty research environment. In the lab I use a  Leica DFC 295 to take microscope pictures.

I mostly use my images raw. Sometimes I have to do some digital dodging, because the light in Hawaii is extremely bright, so you can get really bright skies and super-dark shadows.

Margaret's interns carry test crab cages to the mangroves. Photograph by Margaret Siple.

[biocreativity] Thanks so much Megsie for being a part of the biocreativity blog!

Stay tuned as the ECO Art + Science series continues each Thursday right here on www.biocreativity.wordpress.com! If you or someone you know should be featured in this series, please send an email to biocreativity@yahoo.com.