Synergy: Artists Take on Ocean Science

Blog: 02.14.13

Thursday, February 14, 2013 - 08:00 AM

Each summer, the village of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, swells with scientists. They come from all over the world to study the ocean and its marine life. One of those scientists, Whitney Bernstein, a PhD candidate in chemical oceanography at MIT, wanted to find new ways to help her colleagues reach the public. Woods Hole is also “a vibrant arts community,” Bernstein says, which made it the perfect place to bring the two communities together. So Bernstein launched a collaboration called Synergy aimed at creating art designed to communicate science. The outcome of the collaboration, an exhibit called Ocean Stories, will open on February 16 at Boston’s Museum of Science.

The exhibit will showcase a wide variety of work, from paintings to videos, to lithographs. Bernstein says the show is aimed at people who may not understand how scientific research works. “We wanted to use the art to pique their curiosity,” she explains. “It’s [approaching] science communication from a new angle.”

Collaborating with oceanographer Sophie Chu, artist Karen Ristuben created a sculpture composed of 350 eggshells deformed by acid. The work helps illustrate the damaging affects chemical changes in the ocean can have on calcium carbonate, the main component of tiny sea snails called pteropods. These snails, a key component of the ocean’s food web, feed larger fish such as salmon. “As a scientist trying to communicate science, sometimes I find that it’s difficult to communicate scale,” Bernstein says. But this sculpture helps visitors see “the multitude of individuals that are affected by ocean acidification.” 

The works also illustrate science as a process, a human endeavor. Painter Laurie Kaplowitz took inspiration from oceanographer Ellie Bors’ lab notebooks, crammed with numbers, graphs and text. “They’re notebooks like anybody would keep,” says Lizzie Kripke, who's pursuing dual degrees in neuroscience and painting at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, and who co-directs Synergy. “That really humanizes the science.” Bors studies deep-sea organisms, and Kaplowitz’s dark scrolls evoke the ocean’s depths.

Synergy's collaborators met for the first time on a rainy day last May. They invited eight artists from the region to meet with a group of scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. The organizers arranged for one-on-one interviews and a leisurely lunch, hoping that the artist-scientist pairs would form organically. Chemical oceanographer Jill McDermott found painter Bryan McFarlane and whisked him away to her lab, where she showed him videos of hydrothermal vents and the organisms that live there. The pair became so absorbed in the topic, they arrived late to lunch. “She kidnapped one of our artists,” Bernstein says. 

Ocean Stories runs through May 2013. Visitors will have a chance to meet the scientists and artists involved during panel discussions on March 3 from 1-3pm.

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