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 www.biocreativity.wordpress.com! If you or someone you know should be featured in this series, please send an email to biocreativity@yahoo.com.

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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 www.iecology.net, 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 www.iecology.net.

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 www.timescapes.org  forum!  Probably my biggest source of inspiration for my website is Roger Handgarter’s website (http://plantsinmotion.bio.indiana.edu/).  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 www.iecology.net 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 (www.iecology.net) 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 http://usda.academia.edu/KurtReinhart. 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 http://www.iecology.net/pano_bog.html

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

images for outreach, research and conservation

On Monday afternoon I had the chance to learn more about ARKive.org from Liana Vitali, who led a workshop at this year’s Ecological Society of America meeting in Austin, TX. My first thought upon entering the room (a few minutes late) was: “Where is everybody?”. About a dozen participants from a registered crowd of over 3,600 ecologists came to the workshop to learn more about how this website can contribute to our research, outreach and teaching and how it can be used to satisfy just plain old biological curiosity. I thought the low attendance was strange since this year’s theme is Earth Stewardship which seems pretty in line with ARKive’s mission. And – is it just me – or does there seem to be a growing sense within our field that we ecologists should be doing more to help increase public awareness of what we do? If so, shouldn’t we be taking advantage of as many free resources and training opportunities as possible? As I’ve mentioned before on the biocreativity blog, I think wildlife photography and nature documentaries are two of the most compelling biocreative media for illustrating natural phenomena and introducing broad audiences to the biodiversity of our planet.

ARKive.org does just that. Produced by Wildscreen, a non-profit organization, its mission is to increase public understanding of wildlife, biodiversity and its conservation through wildlife imagery. Wildscreen is behind, among other things, the “world’s largest” wildlife and environmental film festival, the Wildscreen Festival. One major figure behind ARKive.org is the late Christopher Parsons, former head of the BBC’s Natural History Unit and the project has a few notable spokespersons including Dr. Sylvia Earle, Dr. E.O Wilson and Sir David Attenborough (indeed).

ARKive features species profiles with photos and videos of all species listed on the IUCN red list of threatened species. John Hanke of Google Earth fame has recently joined the ARKive team, and as a result you can view ARKive images directly within Google Earth (layer included in GE download) or within the ARKive.org species profiles. All of the images within ARKive have been donated by organizations, professional photographers, researchers and natural history broadcasters. The great part is, you don’t have to ask permission for private, scientific, educational and non-commercial uses. For example, if you would like to use a photo or video for an academic presentation or for use in your K-12 classroom, feel free! Have another use in mind? Just ask permission. Contact information for the photographer or filmmaker is attached in the bottom right corner of every image by clicking the “Credit” link.

There are several ways contribute your images or expertise to ARKive.org. First, ARKive has a “most wanted list” of species for which they need good images and videos. Most species profiles also have a shared Flikr gallery on which users can contribute additional photographs directly. An added benefit of contributing images is that the entire online archive of ARKive is backed up on both US and UK servers, so if you contribute and then somehow loose your data, you’ll have at least two backups of contributed images. If you have expert knowledge to contribute to particular species featured in ARKive, you can offer your help to review and write profiles by emailing arkive@wildscreen.org.uk. If you’re at the ESA meeting you can view the most wanted list and get in touch with Liana at the booth in the exhibit hall. Finally, the ARKive and Universities program allows graduate students to create and review species profiles, providing them with an opportunity to contribute their knowledge and get published online.

Personally, I can’t tell you how helpful it would have been to have had access to ARKive’s videos (linked below) of ‘Akiapola’au – a rare Hawaiian forest bird – when my colleagues and I were presenting results of our research on the foraging ecology of this bird nearly a decade ago. ‘Akiapola’au is so rare we saw it only once in two summers of field research. Explaining the feeding behavior of this bird verbally is so much different than being able to transport your audience to the field via a short film. My only complaint so far is that you can only embed fairly small thumbnails of photos and links to videos like the ones of the ‘Akis below. One way around this is that you can download the videos and re-post them for certain limited purposes (or with permission), but the ability to embed videos (on blogs, for example) would be nice. Nevertheless, this is a cool tool. How will you use ARKive.org?

ARKive video - 'Akiapola'au - overview ARKive video - 'Akiapola'au feeding ARKive video - 'Akiapola'au feeding and calling

nature time-lapse

I really enjoyed reading about (and especially watching) Neil Bromhall‘s oak seed time-lapse featured yesterday on New Scientist’s Time-Lapse Tuesday.  How come I didn’t know about Time-Lapse Tuesday yet!? I mean, really, what kind of rock have I been living under? I have always been somewhat of a time-lapse junkie and am usually left in awe of even the most basic of time-lapse projects, which allow the often “slow” pace of nature to be visualized and appreciated by us humans.

I know I’ve got a long way to go before my work is quite as good as that, but time-lapse is very fun to try. Here is my first time-lapse title page that I made for the biocreativity blog, and I plan to have a new one each month which you can view on the biocreativity vimeo channel:

biocreativity | july 2011 title from h. gillespie on Vimeo.

Of course, technology is always evolving and allowing filmmakers to do some pretty amazing things. I mean, have you seen the incredible stuff the BBC Nature crew has been up to (covered a while back on Moving Image Source)? You can see some of their amazing footage on the BBC Nature Video Collections site. Unfortunately I can’t embed these because I’m not in the UK, but here are links to a couple of my favorites. The first is a six month panning time-lapse of a woodland, and there’s a great documentary about how this was done at the end of the Life episode in which it is featured. My other favorite is of the Antarctic marine invertebrate scavengers. The incredible thing about this one is that it can help inform us about behaviors of these animals that would be hard for us see if we just sat around McMurdo Sound freezing our butts off. Here is one I found that I could embed, about tropical plants climbing to the forest canopy to get sunlight. Amazing!

See why I put my humble little time-lapse before these? Incredible! You don’t even remember having watched mine after seeing those, now, do you? Hopefully, you can see why time-lapse is one of the most compelling media for educating others about biology. Time-lapse not only brings “slow” nature to life, but is also inherently impressive for the amount of time and energy it can take to produce a good one. You might also enjoy Wired Science’s Top 10 Time-Lapse Videos that Show Nature at Work or Mashable’s Nature in Time-Lapse: 10 Awe-Inspiring Videos. I hope you enjoy and share time-lapses that you’ve come across (leave a comment below with links to them!). Maybe you should also try making one yourself in whatever system you work on or enjoy. It’s very easy now with just a camera and either Mac or Windows movie software. A quick web search for “make time-lapse video” will result in plethora of tutorials and advice. Adventure Journal, for example, has a good article on making your own time-lapse videos. You can even use your iPhone! There’s a good tutorial on the iPhone app TimeLapse at Digital Urban. Go ahead…your video just might blow someone’s mind!