ECO Art + Science: Illustrator + Wildlife Biologist Kevina Vulinec

I’m pleased to share my interview with the fourth participant in the biocreativity ECO Art + Science interview series: illustrator and wildlife biologist Dr. Kevina Vulinec of Delaware State University. Trained first as an artist, she turned her artistic skills to scientific illustration when she first learned about the science of ecology. She is also dedicated to educating the public and schoolchildren about science and nature through creative endeavors such as the Florida Scrub Coloring Book which she illustrated while a graduate student at the University of Florida and an intern at Archibald Biological Station.

[biocreativity] Welcome to the biocreativity blog, Kevina! What type of work do you do? How would you describe your interests or profession?

[KV] I am an Associate Professor of Wildlife Biology at Delaware State University. I teach and do research and mentor both undergraduate and graduate students. What I LOVE doing is fun field ecological science and mentoring students! But I also love art—I love pen and ink, painting, and drawing, and would continue to do art if my hands would cooperate. I had an unusual background; starting college as an art major, later realizing that one could actually study animals in the wild (wow, Marlin Perkins was my only role model at that time and I had no idea that there was a science of ECOLOGY!)

Cedar Waxwing illustration by Kevina Vulinec.

[biocreativity] Where do you see yourself on the biocreativity spectrum? What is your primary training?

[KV] I am more of a scientist; but that does not diminish my artistic commitment (in fact I tested 60% right-brain dominance). I encourage my students to consider filmmaking, wildlife art, photography, and writing as careers outside of the traditional wildlife or ecology professions. I started life as an artist (and art major), but quickly realized that I was not at the point where I could do top-quality fine art. At that time, the alternative as a career was to become an advertising artist, which was not appealing to me. I had no idea that I could make a living as a natural history artist! But I did help put myself through my university training by doing scientific drawings.

Green Treefrog illustration by Kevina Vulinec.

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

[KV] The best part of science is the art of science: the creative design of experiments and inquiries. The creativity involved in designing an “elegant” experiment—a very cogent term—requires an openness of mind and some “right-brain” thinking. Good designs require an integration of artistic creativity and scientific rigor. And, the best artists have a background in anatomy, natural history, and an understanding of habitat relationships (think Turner, Picasso, Kahlo, and O’Keefe).

[biocreativity] Do you have specific images in mind when you mention these artists?

[KV]Yes, Picasso painted lots of animals in his paintings (like the horse in Guernica) that symbolized emotions. Kahlo obviously often thought of herself as part other animal, and O’Keffe treasured the anatomy of bones. There are many others–but thought I’d keep the list short.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso (1937, oil on canvas).

Autorretrato con Collar de Espinas y Colibrí ("Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Humming-bird"), Frida Kahlo. 1940.

Ram's Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills, Georgia O'Keeffe, 1935.

[biocreativity] Please describe your art + science endeavors for the biocreativity readers.

[KV] I incorporate art into my career as a scientist when I can. In addition to looking for creative solutions to experimental designs, I also like to use art in my university teaching. Currently, I have assigned my Advanced Wildlife Course students a video project focused on wildlife or a conservation issue, but open to as much artistic input as they would like, including animation. I also enjoy drawing rapid silly cartoons on the board to illustrate concepts during my lectures.

The one art/science project that makes me proud to have been involved with is the Florida Scrub scientific coloring book.

[biocreativity] I really love the coloring book – I really got into marine biology as a kid because of Thomas Neisen’s Marine Biology Coloring Book. What inspired the Florida Scrub coloring book project?

[KV] The coloring book was a collaboration between Dr. Mark Deyrup [of the Archibald Biological Station in the Florida Everglades] and me to highlight the ecological uniqueness of the Florida Scrub—a very small but important and rare ecosystem. We wanted to introduce youngsters to this unusual habitat and the distinctive animals and plants that live in this ecosystem in a hands-on format that allowed for interactive learning. Now that it can be downloaded on the web, teachers and parents all over the world can have access to it. My other art projects (drawing, painting and photography) have focused on the natural world and details (sometimes in microfocus) that reveal the beauty of form following function in animal morphology.

[biocreativity] What is the most important thing that you want others to know about your work?

[KV] We are an interconnected system of organisms. Let’s work to save the natural world for our children’s children and let’s also get them out in it!!! Play outdoors! Watch birds, bike trails, look at ants, grow plants, read about nature, but even better, experience it.

[biocreativity] Well said! What is the most common question or comment you get about your art + science work?

[KV] About art: “YOU drew that???”

About my science (most currently): “BATS??? Why the heck do you study bats???”

[biocreativity] Well, I’ll play along here….why the heck do you study bats?

[KV] I originally was studying Neotropical animals, including primates and dung beetles, but my Chair here at Delaware State University asked that I find something local. I had done some bat work during my masters project, so decided that would be great. They are also one of the most mysterious of mammals and a challenge to study–but that makes them so much more interesting. Furthermore, bats face serious threats from disease, habitat destruction, and wind turbines and finding solutions to these threats is of utmost importance.

Palmetto Scrub Scarab illustration by Kevina Vulinec from the Florida Scrub coloring book.

[biocreativity] Kevina, what’s next for you in art + science? Where do you see your projects going, or what would you like to do next?

[KV] How about art/eco-tourism? Travel with a group to, say, Peru or Belize, and do life drawing or photography workshops in the field.

[biocreativity] That sounds like great fun! I see you were recently awarded a Fullbright Fellowship to go to Brazil. Congrats! Do you have a websiteor other resources that you’d like the biocreativity readers to know about?

[KV] Yes, I have a website and here are links to a couple of Pulse Planet [a daily radio program exploring the world of sound in nature, culture and science] broadcasts about the importance of fruit-eating monkeys and dung beetles in the Amazon rainforest. [And, of course, let’s not forget the Florida Scrub scientific coloring book!]

Cartoon of tropical dung beetles (Oxysternon conspicillatum) building a nest. This picture shows the male guarding the nest and the female constructing a brood ball in which to lay her eggs. They are also inadvertently burying seeds from the monkey dung and thus, replanting the rainforest! Cartoon and caption text by Kevina Vulinec.

[biocreativity] Many thanks for participating in the ECO Art + Science series, Kevina. Best of luck with your trips to Brazil and keep us posted on your art + science endeavors!

Stay tuned for more ECO Art + Science interviews each Thursday right here at! If you or someone you know should be featured in this series, please send an email to

Nikon Small World Photomicrography Winners

So, I’m behind the times by a few weeks on this one, but I just have to tell you all about the winning photographs in the 2011 Nikon Small World Photomigrography Competition that I read about in this article and photo gallery in Popular Science. They’re amazing! For example, sand:

Yanpin Wang's photo of sand at 4x magnification.

I’ve had a particularly fun time browsing the Nikon Small World website, which features a gallery of incredible images, a photo-of-the-day and a daily 5-photo Identify the Image quiz. You can even get your very own calendar of Small World images.

Dr. Donna Stolz's collage image of stained animal cells assembled into a wreath.

The next competition deadline is April 30, 2012 and features both still image category and a Small World in Motion (movie) category. Click here to enter your work!

ECO Art + Science: Photography of Plant Ecologist Kurt Reinhart

This week’s featured artist-scientist in the ECO Art + Science series is Kurt Reinhart: plant ecologist for the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Miles City, Montana, photographer and videographer. Kurt is also the creator of the website, an educational resource for plant ecology on the web. For those of you who are regular readers, you know how much I love time-lapse projects, so I was particularly excited to interview someone who loves time-lapse even more than I do (and who does a great job, too)!

Forests from Kurt Reinhart on Vimeo.

[biocreativity] Thanks for participating in the ECO Art + Science series, Kurt! Why don’t you start by telling the biocreativity readers what type of work do you do.

[KR] I’m an incredibly lucky guy that gets paid to do what I enjoy—being a Plant Ecologist.  At work, I spend most of my time either conceiving, implementing, analyzing, or publishing research projects.  The work is filled with challenges, and I also enjoy the multiple ways that I get to be creative while doing my job.  I have other passions in my life including: my family, hiking, camping, hunting, and nature photography.  In many cases, these passions are intertwined.

[biocreativity] Where do you see yourself on the biocreativity spectrum? Is your primary training in art or science, or both?

[KR] I may be interpreting the term “biocreativity” differently but I aspire to being biocreative.  I see it directly related to making scientific breakthroughs, developing multidisciplinary projects, and elevating the importance of my science.  Creativity is an essential ingredient in scientific achievement.

Though I hated it in high school, my primary training is actually in biology. I’ve also been interested in nature photography for years.  For about five years, I’ve been attempting to merge my professional and recreational interests with the creation of some short educational movies and other types of content on my website

This panorama shows a series of plant communities in different stages of secondary succession occurring at Shades State Park, Indiana. Secondary succession involves recovering following a disturbance. In this case agricultural conversion and then abandonment restarts the successional clock. This specific type of succession is often referred to as "old field succession" following abandonment. The field to the left is the youngest. The slightly older field to the right has an abundance of goldenrod (Solidago sp.). This is a common species in old fields of the eastern United States. To the rear of this field (right side) is an early successional forest. The forest to the left is the oldest plant community in view. As succession progresses there are numerous changes in the plant community composition and structure. Photo & caption text by Kurt Reinhart.

[biocreativity] I really enjoy the iecology site. It’s a great way to visualize ecology – especially plant biology! It’s also great that you’ve been able to use your creative abilities to help educate others about ecology. How do you view the interaction of arts and sciences? 

[KR] Whether art should be merged more formally with science is functionally a decision for faculty at Universities to decide.  This decision really depends on their composition, history and vision, which will dictate whether such a change is pursued or not.  What is obvious to me is that many scientists are also musicians, painters, photographers, etc.  Scientists are a diverse bunch—some are likely indifferent to art but others are deeply connected and inspired by it.  To me, science has many connections with art.

Art is a tangible product that expresses an artist’s ideas and vision.  It serves as a form of communication that when done well provokes interpretation and reflection.  Scientists are concerned with interpreting and generating ideas, building an awareness for what is known and unknown, collecting and interpreting data, and skillfully communicating the importance of their ideas and interpretations.  A lot of aspects of science and art are shared though the training, tools, and media often differ.  I recently had a lot of fun collaborating on a time-lapse project with painter Mika Holtzinger.

Looking Back from Kurt Reinhart on Vimeo.

[biocreativity] What got you interested in plant biology? Also, what are some of the challenges of working with organisms and communities that are often very slow (at least, they are slow from the perspective of most humans) to change? 

[KR] I became really interested in plants after realizing their importance in defining habitat for wildlife and ecosystem structure and function.  Their importance is greater than most realize.  Most people think plants are as boring as rocks…  Their interest in nature is often limited to topics that can be easily visualized like courtship, predation, migration, and other animal behaviors.  I love nature documentaries, but they typically illustrate a small fraction of nature.  Getting audiences excited about the rest of nature is a challenge.

At work, we provide annual school tours.  99.9% of forth graders will never forget the day they got to reach into a cannulated cow’s “stomach” (actually rumen).  A major challenge is making plants equally exciting.  Over the years, I’ve tried to take professional photographs of plants and plant communities (landscapes) to help make them appealing subjects to a broad audience.  I’ve been dabbling in videography and have been shooting time-lapse sequences of plants for nearly 10 years.  Time-lapse videos are my favorite medium for making plants charismatic!

Time-lapse video of American chestnut seedlings growing from Kurt Reinhart on Vimeo.

[biocreativity] What inspired you to get started in photography and what inspires your current work?

[KR] For years, I’ve been a huge fan of the outdoors and nature, macro, wildlife, and landscape photography.  I read books and magazines on nature and landscape photography.  For several years, I’ve been a big fan of the  forum!  Probably my biggest source of inspiration for my website is Roger Handgarter’s website (  I was fortunate to interact with Roger and documentary film maker Sam Orr while post-docing at Indiana University.  I’m also a huge fan of the incredible time-lapse content produced by BBC, especially Tim Shepherd‘s time-lapses.

[biocreativity] I am a huge fan of the BBC time-lapse crew, which I featured in a post about nature time-lapse back in July. Time-lapse just seems to be a really engaging and effective way to get others involved in biology. What is the most important thing that you want others to know about your work?

[KR]  I see patterns and processes in nature with biological meaning that many people don’t.  This view of nature has been honed by years of training and experience.  Publishing research is an essential part of my career but this content often impacts only a small fraction of the world and mostly other scientists.  Photography and videography is one way that I attempt to communicate ecological concepts to a broader world.

The above panorama near the peak of Mount Sentinel near Missoula, Montana experienced a wildfire killing the trees in the foreground. The north aspects of the mountains retain slightly more moisture (i.e. snow melts slower) permiting trees to persist (see upper left of picture with a north-west aspect). Photo and caption text by Kurt Reinhart.

[biocreativity] Your ability to communicate ecology to others is really well illustrated by your Mount Sentinel panorama (above). I assume this often sparks interesting conversations with others about your work and about ecology. What are the most common questions or comments you get about your work?

[KR] A lot of people enjoy watching time-lapse content.  Shooting time-lapse sequences is considerably more challenging than photographing the same subject.  Most questions that I receive pertain to technical details of shooting a sequence.  I only have a few trade secrets and enjoy sharing most of what I’ve learned.  On my website, I provide various details on individual sequences.  I like hearing from people, and their positive feedback helps keep me motivated!

I do lots of different types of research.  So the questions are as varied as the topics and people asking the questions.

Damping-off – a story of plant disease from Kurt Reinhart on Vimeo.

[biocreativity] I really enjoy how you are able to present scientific information along with captivating images. Your short film on damping off disease in plants is a particularly good example of this. I also really enjoy your series of interactive panoramic photos on the iecology site that present information on plant community ecology. The diversity of habitats you’ve covered is impressive! Kurt, what’s next for you?

[KR] I’m enjoying being a full time ecologist in a region with some of the largest, most intact, and least studied grasslands in the world.  I wouldn’t want to be doing research anywhere else.

I’m gradually accumulating all sorts of time-lapse content that I hope to eventually develop into a 10-30 minute movie that I would like to enter in a regional film contest! That is a distant goal.  I’ve also got a new time-lapse set, like a mini studio, nearly complete that should enable me to make some incredible time-lapses of plants.  I love my website but a lot of content on the internet is tough to sustain due to the persistent costs of maintaining a website.  Either way, I’ll still be working away at shooting and making content.

Time-lapse blue grama grass anthesis from Kurt Reinhart on Vimeo.

[biocreativity] Well, I can’t wait to see what comes next! Speaking of science and film – you and the biocreativity readers may be interested in Scientific American’s PsiVid blog. They discuss all kinds of opportunities and methods for making science films. I notice that your Favorites page on the iecology site features a lot of ecology, photography and filmmaking links that could be very useful to the biocreativity readers. Just to summarize, can you tell the biocreativity readers all the places on the web where they can learn more about your work?

[KR] To see my time-lapse content, check out my website ( or  my Vimeo page. The Vimeo account may be the best place to keep track of my content in the future because I’m contemplating closing my website due to annual hosting fees. If you’re interested in learning more about my science then you can jump over to I also have an iecology Twitter account, but post infrequently.

[biocreativity] Kurt, thank you so much for sharing your work with us on the biocreativity blog. I noticed you have a ‘donate’ button at the bottom of the the iecology website. I think it’s really important for there to be diverse ways for the public to learn more about the science of ecology. I hope that folks who like your website might be inspired to give what they can to support it. Now, I’m off to go and watch some more of your videos!

Panoramic photo of a bog in Adirondack State Park in NY. See the interactive panorama and learn more about bog succession at

Stay tuned for more ECO Art + Science interviews each Thursday right here at! If you or someone you know should be featured in this series, please send an email to

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 (, 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: My sister is Director of Education at the Photo Center ( 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! If you or someone you know should be featured in this series, please send an email to

Nature Art Residency in India: Call for Applications

I came across an interesting opportunity for you biocreative types out there! A three-week long residency in India to create works of art using natural objects from the residency site near Mahagoan. Selected artists will visit from mid-November to the first week of December and will be provided with housing and meals, and some funding for travel. Applications are accepted until October 20, 2011.

“The purpose of the residency is to create a common platform for artists from different geographical and cultural backgrounds to converge and  create an art centric environment through these intercultural exchanges.”

For more information, please visit: ARTINNATURE: Call for Application- Nature Art Residency,Nov-Dec 2011.