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Visualizing Hard Science

Visualizing Hard Science

Students in a fall Digital + Media research studio use high- and low-tech tools to explore the changing Narragansett Bay and develop creative research projects.

students peer through microscopes

Students examine phytoplankton and other microorganisms collected during a late-September field trip to Tillinghast Place.

“How can multisensory storytelling be used to explore our relationship with nature and promote stewardship and personal environmental responsibility?” Grad students Vrinda Mathur MID 22 and Lilly Nguyen MADE 22 are using that question to drive research they’re conducting as part of a fall Digital + Media studio called Technological Landscapes. Co-taught this semester by Department Head Shona Kitchen and Edna W. Lawrence Nature Lab Visualization and Imaging Research Associate Georgia Rhodes, the course covers a range of art and design research methodologies that utilize different kinds of technology.


Throughout the semester, students investigate new modes of creative inquiry related to place-based practice, such as fieldwork and site visits, direct experience, interdisciplinary collaboration and public art. The class fosters an open dialogue between creative research, critical studio practice and direct observation/real-world experience.

two students peer through microscopes

“Our starting point for this year’s class is a line across the Narragansett Bay currently under study by scientists and engineers at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography and supported by a grant from Rhode Island’s Science and Technology Advisory Council,” says Kitchen. “We’re encouraging students to experiment and test their hypotheses in a messy, exploratory environment and then present their evidence at the end of the semester in an exhibition in the Nature Lab.”

“Our starting point for this year’s class is a line across the Narragansett Bay currently under study by scientists and engineers at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography.”

Associate Professor Shona Kitchen

During a late-September field trip to RISD’s Tillinghast Place estate on the Narragansett Bay in Barrington, Rhodes and URI postdoctoral fellow Patricia Thibodeau showed students how to use compound microscopes to zoom in on the phytoplankton and other microorganisms they’d collected using simple nets (see video of Thibodeau and grad student Shuyi Guan MLA 22 above). Their bay-water samples were chock-full of Odontella, a chain-like life form that reminded one student of Spanish tiles.

Rhodes and Kitchen wade into the bay with a ROV

Cooke and students watch the data feed into a laptop on the beach
Kitchen and Rhodes wade into the bay with a remote-operated vehicle (ROV). Stephen Cooke and students view incoming data transmitted to a laptop on the beach.

“Today students are counting plankton and comparing the species they collected to the ones Dr. Thibodeau has collected at URI,” says Rhodes. “We’re exploring many sites in the Narragansett Bay estuary and introducing different kinds of technology that have one overarching goal: to study the effects of climate change on coastal ecosystems.”

“We’re exploring many sites in the Narragansett Bay estuary... with one overarching goal: to study the effects of climate change on coastal ecosystems.”

Georgia Rhodes, Edna W. Lawrence Nature Lab

After inspecting their finds at various levels of magnification, the group headed down to the beach, where Kitchen and Art and Design Research Technologist Stephen Cooke were waiting for them. Kitchen and Rhodes waded into the bay with the remote-operated vehicle (ROV) Cooke had connected to a laptop on the beach. “The ROV is equipped with waterproof microphones and cameras and Ping sonar that transmit data directly to the laptop,” he explains. 

URI researchers test an ROV as RISD students look on
Students observe the tools and techniques used by a team of URI oceanographers led by Mingxi Zhou.

As the semester progresses, students are becoming familiar with multiple tools that are used to collect physical, biogeochemical and ecological evidence that reveals the bay’s ecosystem. In addition to the ROV and underwater cameras they worked with at Tillinghast, they’ll experiment with macro photography systems, high-speed cameras, audio equipment, photogrammetry software and 3D scanning devices.

“The goal is to develop a catalogue of proposals that offer a wide range of visualizations and utilize a broad range of media,” says Kitchen. “For example, students might investigate hazardous coastal events like algae blooms or hypoxia and develop projects that help the general public make sense of the scientific data.” 

“We plan to... make holograms based on machine learning outcomes and eventually conduct and document experiments in oceans, estuaries, lakes and rivers.”

Grad Student Sichen Liu

Digital + Media students Sichen Liu MFA 22 DM and Lilan Yang MFA 22 DM were fascinated by the planktonic life they observed under the microscope and are currently using a computer algorithm to design new kinds of planktons. “Where might these computer-generated life forms appear and how might they coexist through projections in different planktonic habitats?” Liu wonders. “We plan to train neural networks based on image datasets of planktons, make holograms based on machine learning outcomes and eventually conduct and document experiments in oceans, estuaries, lakes and rivers.”

Their project is a great example of what Rhodes describes as the “scientific communication angle—how art and design are uniquely capable of captivating people’s imaginations and moving the field forward.”

Simone Solondz

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