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Epic Plankton

Epic Plankton

Summer interns at the Nature Lab are making an animated educational program about the importance of marine plankton.

Oscar Henri Robert 16 GD and Yidan Zeng BRDD 16 GL create an educational animation at RISD’s Nature Lab.

Don’t be surprised if you break into a cold sweat when interacting with Submerge, an animated educational wesbite Oscar Henri Robert 16 GD and Yidan Zeng BRDD 17 GL are creating as summer interns at RISD’s Nature Lab. For weeks the two students have been sifting through more than 50 years of scientific data collected off the Rhode Island shore in the process of presenting the harrowing misadventures of a band of algae colonizing Narragansett Bay. Sadly, the microscopic creatures fail to thrive in stagnant ocean water warmed by the effects of climate change—and ultimately, they’re eaten alive by predatory bacteria.

“Our website tells a story that’s very data-driven at heart. But it also incorporates thematic elements that make for a good post-apocalyptic thriller.”

“Sometimes you need to create some drama to hook an audience,” Robert explains. “Our website tells a story that’s very data-driven at heart. But it also incorporates thematic elements that make for a good post-apocalyptic thriller. There’s suspense, emotional intrigue—and some horror.”

Robert and Zeng are making Submerge as part of a research project funded by a grant from Rhode Island’s Science and Technology Advisory Council (STAC), a government agency that works in tandem with the RI Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) funded by the National Science Foundation. Using the computer program Maya to create the piece, they’re working to communicate scientific concepts that help the public relate to and better understand phytoplankton—a critical food source in the ocean that provides more than half of the world’s oxygen. Alarmingly, scientific studies consistently point to global warming for negatively impacting the growth patterns of these vital plants.

“Though algae are important in the food chain, they are often disregarded and forgotten due to their teeny size,” explains Zeng. “We think it’s gripping how such a small thing—in huge abundance—can have such a devastating effect on the environment.”

“This work bridges critical gaps between data generation and the public’s ability to understand the localized effects of climate change,” explains biologist and Nature Lab Director Neal Overstrom. “As artists and designers, RISD students are in a unique position to present important scientific information in ways that resonate with politicians, business leaders and other policymakers whose decisions may have longterm impacts on the environment. They bring an element of emotion and humanity to the discussion.”

At the start of the creative process, Zeng and Robert rekindled a fascination with their childhood love of games, ultimately creating a sequence for The Next Epic that prompts viewers to click on various “pop-up” marine animals to launch the compelling narration. “We wanted to grab our audience’s attention from the start,” notes Robert. “That’s the key to a successful animation.”

“Using art as a communication tool is about clarity and conveying an idea with as much visual punch as possible.”

”Though Robert is majoring in Graphic Design and Zeng in Glass at RISD and Computer Science at Brown, they haven’t found it difficult to take a mental plunge into working with visualizing science this summer—especially since they’re also connecting with a small group of EPSCoR undergraduate fellows from RISD and Brown who are simultaneously conducting research in the Nature Lab. Serving as a mentor, Senior Critic Rafael Attias 91 GD has been instrumental in helping the artists balance a sense of wonder with scientific facts and logical thinking. “Everyone has been very supportive in allowing us to understand the science side of things, in addition to providing more of a general opinion so that we, as artists, don’t get stuck in our own little world,” Zeng notes.

To showcase their findings, Robert and Zeng are presenting a scientific poster along with students from eight other schools at the annual Rhode Island Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows (SURF) Conference held at the University of Rhode Island on August 1. In preparation for designing their miniature exhibition boards, they participated in a three-hour workshop at the Nature Lab earlier this month on the fundamentals of effective graphic design.

“As an artist, this project has really taught me to slow down and consistently revise my ideas,” explains Robert. “Using art as a communication tool is all about clarity and being able to convey an idea with as much visual punch as possible, while maintaining a strong intellectual focus.”

Abigail Crocker

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