Hi! I’m a Nutria

I’m sure many of you readers have seen this biocreative new animated film Hi! I’m a Nutria by filmmaker Drew Christie, which came out this week in The New York Times (click here to watch)In the film, a Nutria (a large semi-aquatic rodent, originally from S. America) attempts to hold a mirror up to humans by asking how long it takes for something to become ‘native’? While some aspects of the video might strike one as kind of funny (the Nutria is talking with the viewer via mental telepathy, for example), it actually introduces some very profound biological and philosophical questions about introduced species in a fun and creative way. We also learn a lot about biology – the geographic origins of the Nutria in S. America, how this species got to North America, how it differs from some of its other mammalian relatives like otters and beavers, and why some people consider it an invasive species about which something must be done. In essence, this is a very Loraxian film, in which Christie attempts to get the viewer to see things from the perspective of the persecuted species that is unable to speak for itself in real life. You can enjoy more of Drew Christie’s illustrations on his website, www.drewchristie.com.

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visualizing science is cool (and necessary)!

Aside

There’s a great article by Amy Wallace in today’s New York Times (“Science to Art, and Vice Versa”) on two really interesting artist-scientists. This is not a biology-related article, but it does address some of the concerns from my first biocreativity post. Thanks to my Uncle Phil for passing it on. I think Matthew McCory was right on when he said (and I quote from the article), “The scientists at Northwestern do physics, chemistry and biology really well, but they generally don’t have a clue when it comes to making good-looking images,” he said. “A lot was getting lost in translation.” Of course, this is not something unique to Northwestern. Luckily, there are folks like McCrory and Nathalie Miebach working to improve science communication through artistic visualization projects. Should visualization and presentation skills be just as critical as knowing how to analyze your data? If so, how do we begin to improve the artistic toolboxes of scientists?

what is biocreativity?

I’ve always been passionate about two things: art + nature. It is through these two things that I best understand the world, and I am at my most content when my daily activities involve both of these things. I get antsy when I’m doing just one or the other. My passion for nature eventually lead me to pursue a Ph.D. in ecology, in which I used my noodle to help better understand endangered species. What I largely neglected during my seven years in graduate school was art. My last show was in 2003, the intensely biocreative semester i graduated from college. I recall a well-meaning faculty advisor attempting to dissuade me from pursuing an art minor in addition to my biological + environmental studies. “You can still do art, but can’t it just be your hobby?” Luckily he didn’t push very hard, and I won. For me, art is not procrastination. Art is not distraction. Art is not just a hobby.

Scientists often experience intense peer pressure to focus intently (nay, almost entirely) on their research. Graduate students receive this pressure abundantly, and I’ve witnessed too many students drop their creative activities at the behest of advisors. I’ve also heard the equivalent of, “If only so-and-so would use his/her creative skills for more scientific purposes it would be worth doing”. I think this is hindering science, because it gets in the way of our ability to creatively explain our work (and its relevance) to the world. The more creative we can be in doing so, and the more passionate we can become about presenting our work, the more effective we are. I wonder what pressures biocreatives trained primarily in the arts experience? Both those trained as “artists” + as “scientists” are trained to seek out novelty, to contribute to their fields in new and exciting ways. I think those biocreatives who can (seemingly) effortlessly blend the two are the most innovative, and have the best chance at improving art, science + social literacy around the world.

And so, you are wondering, what is biocreativity? I think it is any endeavor that combines art with biology or natural phenomena. A well-made graph or figure made by a scientist to visualize the results of her research. A nature documentary that is not only visually striking but documents novel animal behaviors. A musical piece composed entirely of the sounds of insects. An ephemeral outdoor sculpture made of natural objects. A school class project to construct miniature biomes in shoeboxes. A genetically-engineered glowing bunny. A photograph of El Capitan. An underwater sculpture that grows into a living coral reef. The entire field of natural history illustration. A portrait on a petri dish. A piece of jewelry made from a feather. A collage made of trash from a national park. A graphic tee with a bird on it. A carefully-sculpted bonsai tree. A piece of mimbres pottery depicting desert fauna. A cave painting of a buffalo. A youtube video of a honeybadger. I hope to explore all of these and more through this blog, and look forward to hearing your perspective from your place on the biocreativity continuum!

So that’s it. That’s why I’m starting this. I hope you will like it.