New ways of finding empathy and engagement with scientific material is as important to the public discourse as raw knowledge.  This is often the role of artists.  We offer new creative ways of approaching problem-solving, but we also can reconfigure scientific conventions for methods of documentation and recording so that the information itself is more compelling and/or more accessible, both to scientists and the general public. 

Artists engaged in using scientific material are interested in making science a part of the public discourse, which will inevitably will lead scientists to seeing what they do in a new way.  Artists often begin not knowing where they will go.  Artists make messes, and then dig themselves out.  They create through process, throwing together disparate elements and finding meaning through the synthesis of information - even loosely defined information. Cynthia Beth Rubin and Susanne Menden-Deuer first began discussing collaboration in the Fall of 2010.   Neal Overstrom, Director of the Rhode Island Schol of Design Edna Lawrence Nature Lab suggested to Cynthia that consulting with oceanographers would bring a new element to her Digital Nature course.  In January 2011, Susanne and her colleague Tatiana Rynearson visited the "Digital Nature" class taught by Cynthia at RISD.

This is more than decorating science.  This is making science a part of the public discourse, and it inevitably will lead to scientists seeing what they do in a new way.

Even at that first encounter the discussions were lively.  Susanne and Tatiana were impressed by the critique method of teaching art, during which students and teacher together decipher the visual language of creative works  in progress, offering comments and suggestions on how color interaction and other elements of composition change our interpretation of what we see. 

The RISD students and teacher were enthralled by the science.  Exploring the microscopic world in the context of our environment, we set out in the middle of winter to capture our own specimens and experience the world is normally invisible.  We found that the water just a few short miles away was teaming with life.

In February 2012 Cynthia was contacted by Susanne for input on a special plankton image capture by Elizabeth Harvey, and she began visiting the URI lab regularly.  The first step was improving the readability of this an image of Hetrosigma and Favella, digitally caught in the perfect moment of proximity of predator and prey.

The Collaboration has brought the partners into interesting discussions about the nature of perceived reality. Because most plankton take on the color of what they have just digested, or reflect the colors of their environment, there is no "true color" to the specimens.  And we all know that water is clear, and that the blue that we see is reflected light.  Nonetheless, we have strong cultural and experiential associations with color.  

As Cynthia moved into more creative, painterly works with the plankton, she added imaginary background information to the images.  In this work, she drew heavily on her previous work with cultural heritage and history.  What is the similarity between entering a historic space and imagining the lives of the humans who occupied it decades or centuries ago, and observing a group of favella swimming around and imagining their ocean environment?

This effort is part of the ripple effect of a new partnership between the University of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island School of Design in the study of effects of climate change.  Through an EPSCOR grant the RISD Nature Lab was able to purchase the microscopes and other equipment that made it possible for Rubin to undertake this work.

This collaboration is itself a work in progress.  We began with narrow goals, as a way to become acquainted with one another's disciplines.  We are a few steps further down that road, but what comes next is in the realm of the great unknown of research.

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