Life in a Drop of Water
Summer research projects funded by the National Science Foundation focus on bringing scientific discoveries to a wider audience.
Imagine walking by a towering city high-rise at night and seeing a swath of bright orb shapes meandering across its walls. Coming closer, you’re surprised to hear the sounds of ethereal music. Brown student Noah Schlottman, who interned at RISD’s Edna Lawrence Nature Lab over the summer and is majoring in both music theory and environmental studies, hopes that his evocative installation will help members of the public to connect more viscerally and emotionally with the vital marine creatures known as phytoplankton.
This is just one of a handful of summer research projects 10 students pursued at the Nature Lab thanks to support from the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) and 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.
Working individually and in small teams, they met as a group throughout the summer to share insights culled from scientific journals, field research and interviews with marine biologists, with the goal of communicating those discoveries to a larger public.
For instance, Lucia Monge MFA 15 SC mentored Schlottman and Beatrice Steinert, a Brown biology major who worked on a children’s book printed with handmade wood blocks. The ornate publication illustrates the life cycles of plankton as a means of raising awareness about their adverse reactions to climate change.
“The Nature Lab is an infinite provider of content where people are pursuing an interesting hybrid of investigations,” Monge notes. “I feel very lucky and proud to be able to be part of this flexible, dynamic place. Anyone can get inspired here. With a quick look into an electron microscope you can see objects magnified up to 40,000 times their actual size.”
Schlottman and Steinert also connected with fellow intern Soe Yu Nwe MFA 15 CR over the summer. The native of Myanmar helped both students cultivate their own appreciation for the mysterious aspects of the life form that provides more than 50 percent of the earth’s oxygen. “There’s an underlying mysticism to each of their projects,” notes the Ceramics grad student. “I find each of their concepts to be incredibly alluring.”
In the process of making an educational website, Oscar Henri Robert 16 GD and Yidan Zeng RISD/Brown 16 GL/CS condensed more than 50 years of scientific data collected off the Rhode Island coast to reveal the plight of a colony of algae stricken by an influx of nutrients cultivated in warming waters. Sarah Recht MFA 15 GD and James Wheaton MFA 15 GD also developed an educational website that features interviews with local fisherman and other Rhode Islanders with a vested interest in the health of the ocean.
“No one has been working in a silo,” notes Jennifer Bissonnette, the biological programs designer at the Nature Lab who mentors the interns. “There’s an intense synergy here that’s incredibly exciting to witness.”
All of this scientific cross-collaboration at the Nature Lab has also been documented by film students Nicholas Martinez 15 FAV and Jon Gourlay 15 FAV, who shot footage of the interns as they conducted interviews, discussed pertinent issues and brainstormed ways to connect with the public.
“I think documentation is key,” notes Monge. “It provides the basis with which to further develop the conversation on interdisciplinary projects, creative thinking and critical making—all of which we discuss daily in the Nature Lab. This unique experience has definitely fueled my desire to keep going after such intellectually stimulating projects.”
Funding from a $280,000 EAGER grant will enable RISD to develop a maker space and K–12 curriculum focused on bio-design and its relationship to real-world problems.
Summer interns at the Nature Lab are making an animated educational program about the importance of marine plankton.
For the last year, a consortium of nine Rhode Island colleges and universities—including RISD, Brown and the University of Rhode Island (URI)—has been engaged in a joint, multiyear project to investigate the impact of climate change on marine life.