RISD experience evokes wonder, challenges assumptions

Jennifer BissonnetteJennifer Bissonnette
Rhode Island School of Design
Biological programs designer, The Nature Lab
SURF program mentor

With an undergraduate degree in biology, a Ph.D. in marine science, and a passion for art, Jennifer Bissonnette embodies what Rhode Island School of Design brings to the Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR table — the marriage of scientific investigation and artistic inquiry.

The Rhode Island jurisdiction is the only one in the country to include an art and design school, and the partnership has exceeded expectations, enriching the institution and its students as well as the RI EPSCoR community in both intended and previously unimagined ways.

“If you only hear the science, it doesn’t always resonate,” says Bissonnette, who holds oversight responsibility for the microscopy, imaging, and aquatic systems developed through EPSCoR funding at the RISD Nature Lab. “It doesn’t evoke a connection, an urge, a willingness to protect Narragansett Bay in the face of climate change.

“Once you see these organisms, these fish, and get told the story that the science is analyzing, it’s not us versus them anymore. We are all a part of it and we are connected. That is what engages people.”

Tropical migrant fish —  a blue spotted cornet, left, and a short bigeye — collected off Jamestown swim around each other in an EPSCoR saltwater tank at the RISD Nature Lab.

Today, the Nature Lab hosts two 150-gallon saltwater tanks with local species from Narragansett Bay. Bissonnette takes students into the field several times a year, using seine and plankton nets to collect aquatic flora and fauna. A cadre of students then takes care of them year-round through established protocols for care and feeding. There also is a 65-gallon tank with seahorses, which are a local species, but have been bred in captivity.

For RISD students, Bissonnette says, the aquatic systems encourage a sense of place and make the invisible visible, showcasing the staggering array of color, shape, form, and design that lies beneath the water’s surface. At the same time, the tanks give practical insight into biological systems and how to keep closed systems alive — a much more involved process than merely adding fish to water.

“It becomes a cross section, if you will, of the diverse forms and life history strategies that exist within a little slice of the Bay,” Bissonnette notes. “The students learn about what makes an ecosystem an ecosystem, and the microbes necessary to keep the system going. Classes frequently use the tanks to gain inspiration for design — after all, nature has had 3.8 billion years of research and development to refine form and function to meet the demands of finding prey, mating, and avoiding predators. We can learn a lot from it in terms of efficiency and elegance.”

Bissonnette says that to her, the educational platform engages students in the natural world in ways they otherwise would not experience. They gain an awareness of what lives in the Bay and use the tools of art and design to bring to life the story behind the data.

“Science fills our need for knowledge, and the arts evoke meaning — that’s what makes us feel alive, engaging in community and connecting with our world.”

butterfly fish
A butterfly fish, netted last summer at Jamestown, swims through a cement cast of a student’s hands. Through Nature Lab workshops, students learned about the habitat requirements of the inhabitants, tank friendly materials, and then they created sculptures to put in the saltwater tanks.

In addition to the tanks, EPSCoR funding has supported the purchase of high-powered microscopy equipment, visualizing systems and geographical information systems (GIS) to explore the storytelling and data visualization that connects audiences to issues affecting the Bay.

The microscopy — with magnification capability of up to 45,000 times what the eye can see — allows exploration of nature at different scales and such phenomenal depth that diatoms look like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, says Bissonnette. The equipment has been used in projects for the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program and RI Science and Technology Advisory Council (STAC) research grants, and collaborations between RISD and URI faculty, to create compelling visualizations.

“Evoking that sense of wonder makes people want to move in closer,” Bissonnette says. “It challenges everyday assumptions and re-engages people in new ways.”

The GIS program affords the ability to map the natural world, in one instance used to create a walking tour that incorporates data from along College Hill and allows viewers to access various points of the ecosystem, from vegetation to the pollinating andrenid bees.

Together, the EPSCoR equipment and the RISD pedagogy set the stage for students to take in the science and be rigorous about the discipline while exploring from an emotional perspective, Bissonnette explains: “People have multiple sides to themselves. Science fills our need for knowledge, and the arts evoke meaning — that’s what makes us feel alive, engaging in community and connecting with our world. The sciences are an important field of endeavor that works on just the facts, and tries to weed out the emotionality.

“In a way, combining the two gives us the freedom to look at the whole picture, reinvigorating the science without losing the factual basis and with the kind of expressiveness that will engage the public.”

moon jellies
Morning light shines through a Waterman Street window as moon jellies float in a saltwater tank at the RISD Nature Lab.

The opportunities provided by EPSCoR support and RISD investments have drawn a broad mix of students from many of the art and design disciplines along with a surprising number of students in the dual degree program with Brown University, as well as students and faculty from Brown. The lab now enjoys a reputation as one of the best places to work on campus, bringing in an eager cohort of both undergraduate and graduate students.

Neal Overstrom, Nature Lab director, says Bissonnette fills two critical needs — having professional staff with a high level of technical expertise to maximize use of systems acquired through EPSCoR and shifting the lab from providing strictly resources to content that complements the academic work taking place.

In Bissonnette, Overstrom says, the Nature Lab found not only the expertise, but also someone who brought a holistic view to the EPSCoR partnership and the issues of climate change and coastal impact.

Story and photos by Amy Dunkle | RI NSF EPSCoR