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GeoTalk: Creative communication for science education – meet scientific artist Kelly Stanford

GeoTalk: Creative communication for science education – meet scientific artist Kelly Stanford

GeoTalk interviews usually feature the work of early career researchers, but this month we deviate from the standard format to speak to Kelly Stanford, an artist based in Manchester, UK who focuses on creating works of art that embody scientific concepts in an accessible and aesthetically pleasing manner which can be used to communicate science to the public. Here we talk to her about her career path into science art (SciArt) and science communication (SciComm), her recent projects, lessons learned as a science communicator, and more!

Hi Kelly, thanks for talking to me today! To start off, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little more about your career path so far?

I’m a scientific artist/illustrator based in Manchester, in the UK, who uses art as a form of science communication. My academic background was originally History of Art which I did as an undergrad at the University of Manchester (my dissertation was on Eduardo Paolozzi’s Turing Suite – a series of overlooked prints themed around the life of Alan Turing and technological progress), before I focused my career path exclusively to SciArt and SciComm after I graduated.

My practices have always been rooted in science and art, so I wanted to continue to develop these during my time at university.  During my time in Manchester, I started to network and collaborate with scientists from the university’s physics department in order to develop my work further. I was amazed at how accommodating the university was towards interdisciplinary work; I had access to labs so I could experiment with new materials and figure out how to incorporate them into my work. This eventually this led to me collaborating with the National Graphene Institute, which is currently in the process of hanging my art up around the building for permanent exhibition, plus some future projects with other departments too.

All my work is freelance so I get to work on a diverse range of stuff. Most of the time I will be commissioned by a scientist and then we will work closely together to realise their project ideas (like an educational card game) and other times I set my own personal projects to work on with companies (such as public art sculptures).

How did you first get interested in SciArt and SciComm?

I first got interested in SciArt during my college days. The SciComm element came later as I noticed that the pieces I made in the studio space led to numerous people asking me about their inspiration and general science questions.  A few fellow students pointed out that I was able to break topics down and simplify them so that even those from non-science backgrounds could understand the subject. I also noticed that they were taking note of science in the news more after our discussions and looking things up. Eventually this led to us projecting NASA live streams onto the studio wall during lessons, much to the dismay of our skeptical art professor. It really made me focus on SciArt’s inherent SciComm potential so it became a main focus during and after my university days to develop it further.

One of your most recent works is Science Pusheen: where you create illustrations of the cartoon cat Pusheen in various STEM roles. What was your inspiration and goal for this project, and what has been the response so far?

Originally, I made them as a bit of fun in between my main work and as a response to the lack of positive STEM representation in cartoon media. I was disappointed that there was no science-themed Pusheen’s (not even a simple lab technician) so I made my own! The project started as a set of four basic drawings I made on my iPad and uploaded to my Twitter (@TheLabArtist), I had no idea they’d blow up as much as they did. I let people use the illustrations so they’re now being incorporated into classrooms, labs, presentations and outreach events!

I now take requests for science fields to cover in the project – I’m aiming to cover most science fields so that everyone has their own Pusheen. Geoscientific fields gets requested a lot so I’ve already made a few covering this area. I’m currently working on a climate scientist and communicator Pusheen as we speak!

In your opinion, why is having STEM representation in media (such as your Pusheen cartoons) important?

STEM is a part of everyday life so I feel that people should be made more aware of it. I also think science has these cultural stereotypes where you have to be a certain type of person to be a scientist, which isn’t the case. I believe anyone can get involved with STEM, so the more representation in popular media these fields get hopefully the more normalized it will become.

Besides Science Pusheen, you have been involved in a number of other projects, from designing science education themed card games to creating science communication sculptures! What have been some of your favorite projects recently?

Well one of my favorites was the ‘STEM Bee’ science communication sculpture I made for the Bee in the City last year in Manchester. The STEM Bee was a 1.8 metre tall bee sculpture that was embellished with imagery from Manchester research papers, portraits of famous scientists, science facts, a list of the city’s scientific achievements and the signatures of roughly 80 local researchers (including a Nobel Prize winner!). The signatures were a nice touch as it represented current-day research being done in the city, rather than just focusing on the historical stuff. It also allowed me to meet and collaborate with a whole bunch of researchers from different backgrounds.

The bee was outside Manchester Oxford Road train station (one of the main ones in the city) for two months so loads of people got to see it. I worked with my sponsor, ARUP (engineering firm behind the Sydney Opera House) to promote the project through free posters/postcards and a free DIY Bee Hotel guide which was unlockable via a QR code on the bee’s base. Eventually my sculpture was auctioned off and raised an amazing £22,000 for local charities – SciComm and charity fundraising in one!

At the start of the year I collaborated with Chris Skinner a research fellow at the University of Hull, UK, to design a flood defense card game he created called ‘Resilience’ for the University of Hull’s SeriousGeoGames Lab. My job was to design all of the graphics (card layout, branding and the card artwork); it was a really fun project and was great seeing the test version shown at this year’s EGU conference. We want to work on the game some more, tweaking a few things to make it play better and even introduce some special cards ready for EGU2020!

More recently, I’ve just finished making two more SciComm sculptures, this time gorillas for the Jersey Zoo, on the island of Jersey in the English Channel.  The first is more of a fun one for children that’s themed around space and glows in the dark. The other is dedicated to Gerald Durrell, the founder of the zoo and the Durrell Conservation Trust. Gerald was crucial in influencing change in how zoos worldwide operate, shifting from a mere attraction to an ‘ark’ where endangered species are conserved for repopulation purposes. He was also a massive influence for future wildlife presenters such as David Attenborough. It’s an honor to be commissioned for such a piece and I hope my sculpture does a good job at communicating Durrell’s importance in species conservation!

You also have given workshops teaching different scientific topics through art and discussing how art can be used as an effective tool for science communication. What strategy do you use and impart to educators when it comes to teaching science through art?

I try to create a calm environment in the classroom and don’t exert too much pressure on the students during lessons. If you exert too much pressure (which is becoming a major problem in UK schools), they’ll be too stressed to take anything in. The main objective is for them to have fun, learn some interesting facts and come away with a physical object that they’ve made. In my recent workshop I got a school of 150 students to create their own illustrated ecology books focused on a creature of their choice and its habitat, complete with annotations. The workshop not only got them to do research ecology research, but it also produced something they can take home and look at. I find that visual learning such as the SciArt workshops is great in that the art helps reinforce the science subject its themed around and it can also be therapeutic and boost creativity.

What are some of the biggest lessons you have learned as a scientific artist? What advice would you impart to aspiring science communicators?

Just dive in head first – as science communicators our job is to find new, unthought of methods of science outreach. So, don’t be afraid of trying new things, even if it’s outside of your discipline. Sometimes starting as an outsider and working inward can give you a good insight on how to help others do the same.

Interview by Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer

You can learn more about Kelly Stanford as well as her ongoing and past projects via her website: https://www.kellystanford.co.uk/. You can follow her work on twitter via @TheLabArtist.

 

We’re hiring! New job opportunities at the EGU Executive Office

We’re hiring! New job opportunities at the EGU Executive Office

The EGU is hiring for two job vacancies at its Executive Office in Munich, Germany. The deadline for applications is fast approaching (14 July 2019) so send your submission soon!

Chief Strategy & Finance Officer
The EGU has recently launched a new strategy to set a direction for the Union and to guide the work of its Council, committees and staff until 2025. This is an exciting time in the development of the EGU and we have created a new position of Chief Strategy & Finance Officer to lead the development and implementation of the Union’s strategic plan and vision, with particular responsibility for the financial security of the Union going forward. This role will be part of the EGU leadership team and will report directly to the EGU Executive Board.

The full job vacancy, including key responsibilities, person specification and how to apply, is available at https://www.egu.eu/jobs/2428/egu-chief-strategy-finance-officer/. Informal enquiries about this position can be made to the EGU Executive Secretary Philippe Courtial (executive-secretary@egu.eu).

Head of Media, Communications & Outreach
We are also seeking to appoint a Head of Media, Communications & Outreach to manage EGU press and communication activities and lead the media, communications and outreach team. This position will replace the current Media and Communications Manager role. Responsibilities include managing press releases and other news, organising press conferences and running the press centre at the EGU General Assembly, as well as overseeing all aspects of EGU communications and developing a forward-looking vision for communicating the work of the EGU.

The full job vacancy, including key responsibilities, person specification and how to apply, is available at https://www.egu.eu/jobs/2427/egu-head-of-media-communications-outreach/. Informal enquiries about this position can be made to the EGU Media and Communications Manager Bárbara Ferreira (media@egu.eu).

GeoTalk: Connecting art and science with the 2019 EGU artists in residence

GeoTalk: Connecting art and science with the 2019 EGU artists in residence

At the annual EGU General Assembly in April, more than 16,000 scientists from 113 countries convened in Vienna to share exciting research and discuss the latest advances in their field. During this conference, the EGU hosted two artists in residence to engage with scientific research in a dynamic setting and be inspired by new scientific discoveries. This year, we interviewed the 2019 artists in residence, Morgane Merlin and Giorgo Skretis, on their General Assembly experience, their relationship with art and science, and their views on how art can be used to bridge the gap between science and society.

Merlin is an environmental science PhD student and visual artist based in Alberta, Canada. Credit: M Merlin

Morgane Merlin

Merlin is an environmental science PhD student and visual artist based in Alberta, Canada. She works with a variety of media, including watercolours, acrylics and pastels. At the meeting, she focused on creating illustrations based on the main research results of selected presentations.

You are a scientist; how did you start drawing?

I have always drawn my whole life, so it’s been something that I did as a kid.  I kept it up through school, and then after high school there was a point I had to decide if I wanted to go more towards the art school or to go towards the science path. I made the decision to go into science so I went to a science school university and now I am doing my PhD, but I always kept the art as something that I did in my past time, something that I wanted to put effort in. It has always been part of my life and I have been trying to incorporate [the] scientific part of my life so the EGU [General Assembly] was a great opportunity to do so.

What do you think that art and science have in common?

They both look at the environment that surrounds us. We just look at it differently. In science we are trying to understand what we are seeing, which is the natural environment for me, my research area, but in art it’s kind of the same, it’s how we perceive our environment around us. So they have very similar missions, but very different ways to communicate it. The science part can definitely gain some artistic perspective to be able to communicate more with the public…

From art and science, which one you enjoy the most?

That’s a tough question! It’s really tough because I really enjoy both of them. With the science I really enjoy doing experiments, finding some really new and exciting results, but at the same time, some days you need a break, so then that’s when I turn to art. And I really enjoy it, just take a step back and sort of focus on myself and a more down-to-earth activity I guess, by just drawing. Both of them bring a lot of joy, but they satisfy different parts of me.

The tiny menace of bark beetles for our forests. Artwork by Morgane Merlin. Photo from Anastasia Kokori

What can art bring to science? What are the benefits of art on science? What can science bring to art?

I think art can bring a lot in terms of just changing our perspective as scientists. Sometimes as scientists we get blocked down into the data and the analysis, and by trying to reach out and link it with arts, we can just take a step back and try to refocus on what it means and how to communicate that. With arts you can really focus on how to best communicate your message. People respond to different colours, different designs, and I think by incorporating some art concepts into our scientific communication, we can definitely improve on how we communicate our results, how we see our own results to better involve the public, for example, and just understand why we do that.

As an artist in residence, how was the experience at the EGU General Assembly? How do you feel?

This was my first time doing this kind of artist in residence thing. It was definitely kind of scary at first because I have never done this. I have been usually doing my art in the privacy of my own home; no one really saw me painting or drawing in my life, but it has been a really wonderful experience to see how open people are to see something different.

We may see the scientific community as very focused people and they only understand science, but a lot of them have a lot of things going on. I have discussed with a lot of people, [and] many people are just interested in just having a very quick chat about what I am doing here but also that themselves actually have drawn in the past time or they play music, or they did other things like that. So it has been a great experience for me as both a scientist and an artist to put myself outside there and just have a lot of good interactions with the people that came to the conference.

It is a big conference, I had people that were just stopping, coming to look, because it’s something different from what you expect from a scientific conference. So, lots of people just browsed, looked what I have been doing, and looked some of the paintings I have. About 75 percent of them also just stopped and asked me what I am doing here because they were not aware of this. Overall all these interactions made me feeling confident in bridging these two parts of my life, science and art. It has been a very diverse and exciting experience.

Magma transport in the crust. Artwork by Morgane Merlin. Photo from Anastasia Kokori

How can art be used to bridge the gap between science and society?

I think art and bringing art into a scientific context can definitely help with communicating scientific results to the public because lots of artists are part of the general public, they don’t have a background in science. So by bringing artists and scientists to collaborate together in projects, I think this definitely helps communicating the science to the public and increase the efficiency of outreach.

Artists have this very visual representation. The whole thing is based on communicating to the public. When you put together artists and scientists with scientific results that [are] sometimes very hard to communicate, art is this sort of middle man that can help you translate the very jargon heavy scientific results to what is going to be understood by the public.

Do you have any further ideas or recommendations to improve the collaboration between art and science?

What I would suggest for the future, maybe having small panel sessions where the artists with the scientists can really engage with each other at a more intimate level by having structured sessions. Maybe with these sessions, both the artists and the scientists could complete something together and produce some art piece or artwork together and then being exhibited during the last days of the conference, for example, to promote the engagement of both the artists and the scientists.

Giorgo Skretis is a visual artist and musician based in Chania, Greece. Credit: G Skretis

Giorgio Skretis

Giorgo Skretis is a visual artist and musician based in Chania, Greece. During his residency, he created a small collection of sculptures using natural materials such as clay and plaster. The form and manner of creation of these sculptures reflected the various processes and forces of nature, with a focus on themes presented at the meeting.

As an artist, how did you become interested in science?

I have a small background in science; I also studied for a few years for an electrical engineering degree but I decided to stop in order to get engaged with art. But I have always been interested in science related issues. And this was going into my art in the past. In terms of sculpture, my interest is the object of science, the Earth processes. I am interested in all the processes and how matter changes when it is wet, or when it hot, or dry, all this kind of these things.

As a professional artist, what inspired you to go into science?

I am interested in the way that materials change and the different processes in nature, for example how land lies, or the earth falling, or the sediments.  So in a relation to art, how you can use these Earth related processes to talk about the human condition.

Artwork by Giorgo Skretis. Photo from Anastasia Kokori

What was the reaction from the public at the EGU General Assembly?

I had a range of people that couldn’t understand exactly what I was doing here, people that could really relate with what I was looking at, and let’s say the outcome. I had many people who came to me and we had interesting conversations about my subject that was on the use of materials and Earth resources by humans, the impact of this use and the extent to which we can control or limit or use the benefits of the wider ecosystem. There were people that just came and expressed their appreciation for the visual aspects of it.

What were the highlights from this year at the EGU General Assembly?

I have been hearing so much [at] this conference on how art can be used as an outreach method for scientists and I am sure it can work to this direction.

Through meeting different people, some ideas for future collaborations came up and I would love to join again as an [EGU artist in residence]. I think a big surprise was also the sculpture workshop that I ran, and there were lots of interested people to participate and they wanted to explore their research interests with materials such as clay. So it shows that the split fields of arts and science get more and more closer.

Interview by Anastasia Kokori, EGU Press Assistant

You can follow the art work produced by Merlin and Skretis via social media (using the hashtag #EGUart) and on GeoLog.