One of the things that Kristin and I have really considered a lot in our conversations has been the art of storytelling, and I think that storytelling does not get enough attention in its importance in science. You often hear about how the stories behind scientific discoveries are more interesting than the science itself, and that’s largely due to the fact that we keep this all separate. And that’s silly. Science, history, culture, and art all fit together tightly, and storytelling is a way to not only advance science, but a way to connect the dots.
I have been doing science outreach in some form for 15 years, and one of the most telling activities I ever partook in was the creation of a video series during graduate school. We tried to get researchers to tell stories about themselves in order to humanize the researchers. It didn’t go very well; many of the researchers we talked to were awkward as storytellers and instead wanted outreach to be focused on the discussion of their favorite science. The videos were the most fun when some of the researchers who were able to tell stories, and it was no coincidence that the storytellers having the most fun were also the best at making their science interesting and exciting.
We were low on subjects, and so those of us making the films had to turn the cameras on ourselves and start telling our own stories. And in my conversations with Kristin, I started thinking about one I had told.
We asked each researcher what was their first science experiment? Most talked about an experiment that they had done at school, but I found that to be a very tricky narrative. If science is a process, then when is the first time you specifically remember going through the process?
My first memory of this was back in preschool, and it’s one of my first memories. We had long recesses, and my preschool had a nice space outdoors where we could all play. There was a honeysuckle bush, or at least some shrub with flowers, that always had bumblebees. And I was fascinated the bees, as I still am. They look so happy and fluffy. And I wanted to pet one. I was a kid; things that are fluffy are to be pet. In other words, I had collected observations and formed a hypothesis. The next step was to collect my own data. I followed a particularly large bee, and I tried to pet it with my finger. The data I collected? A stinger in my hand. I cried, and I got more data provided to me from fellow researchers; others had had my idea, and most had been stung or hurt. This changed my views on how to deal with bees, and my new way of dealing with them was to simply leave them alone. And over time, living in this paradigm of not trying to pet bees, I’ve greatly reduced the number of stings.
What’s so strange is that I forgot about telling this story for years, but I’ve revived it in the past few years when teaching the scientific method. I’m not saying none of my students roll their eyes when I tell this story, but it clarifies the scientific process for most that I’ve noticed a marked improvement in understanding.
Stories and narratives are important for conveying the meaning and implications of science. Plus they’re fun. It’s an art that’s highly underused. And it’s important to integrate them more into both science and sciart.
As an experiment in visualizing what an interactive story about ecosystems might look like, I created a sketch using p5.js, taking inspiration from food web diagrams and national park posters.
While Andy continued research on species and ecosystems casting a wide (global) net, I needed a quick sample set to play with and found an opportunity to learn more about species and ecosystems of Texas to build a prototype from. I selected six ecosystems: marsh, river, forest, desert and mountain. In hindsight, I should have included the grassland ecosystem. I selected only twenty species to start with, many but not all of which move between one or more of the selected ecosystems.
Next I trained an AI with machine learning technology to look at images of vintage park posters and transfer the aesthetic style of their design onto digital images of Texas ecosystems. I used the resulting images as backgrounds on which to stage the ecosystems. An unexpected outcome is that the color palette shifts generated by the AI algorithm reflect the changing color temperature of light upon landforms at different times of day. To show this effect, I created a few animated GIFs using only a handful of the images generated by the AI.
The p5.js prototype I’ve been working on lets you follow a species through ecosystems that it contributes to. Click on the marker for Javelina in the mountain ecosystem and you are transported to the desert ecosystem where you can select a different species to follow, such as the Deer Mouse or Spiny Lizard. A more developed version would include more ecosystems, representation of a greater number of phyla and species, and greater complexity in coding; in addition to color coded silhouettes of species. We envisioned the project (a tool with stories) for an age group that goes birdwatching. That’s something that I want to return to, though I’m excited that the aesthetic approach of this early prototype shows potential as an educational game for kids.
Integrating short text-based stories from our research has been another priority for us. In a less illustrative, more functional visual UX design, hovering your cursor over a species map could trigger a popup story about codependent species relationships within a single—or across multiple—ecosystems. Andy had a name for this type of research in the field of biology that I failed to jot down: a bird picks up a fungus on its feet while perching on a tree branch, then flies to another ecosystem and transfers the fungus to a different tree species, linking the two ecosystems in a complex and vital way. Initially, we set out to create a story structure that would support more than one protagonist and that could lead you to something you were not looking for. Such a project could increase awareness of how ecosystems work and demonstrate the range and spatial needs of species, their dependency on biodiversity, and the complexity and interconnectivity within ecosystems.
Throughout our residency, we have discussed the dimensions of human intervention within ecosystems, attempts to restore their balance, the conundrum of restoration to a point in time, the shifting of ecosystems related to warming waters and climate change, as well as markedly-different attitudes toward the same invasive species across different communities/locations, globally.
In our final meeting, Andy and I pivoted our project idea into a new form we are both excited about; one that synergizes the mapping of data on species and ecosystem together with data on human attitudes toward species (including invasives) and species’ status in ecosystems (native, introduced, migrating, etc). This new form for our research can highlight the range and spread of species, globally, through a multitude of human resources and perspectives. Moving forward, I’ll be investigating whether this is something we can host on an existing platform as a public research project, or whether it is something better suited to a web app built with a mapping API.