SURF’s up 2017: RI undergrads in research


Research fellow: Xuefei Yang
Hometown: Beijing, China
School: Rhode Island School of Design
Major: Industrial Design

Xuefei Yang, a rising junior, voices a clear vision for her future path: “The conservation issue is pretty serious. I want to contribute to help make the Earth a better place.”

With that goal in mind, Yang secured a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) with Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR and has been spending her summer on a project that aims to enhance public engagement in marine conservation through novel representations of aquatic organisms.

“Basically,” she explains, “we want to figure out a way to encourage people to care more about the environment, and make them more curious and enthusiastic about preserving it.”

Under the guidance of mentors Neal Overstrom, RISD Nature Lab director, and Jennifer Bissonnette, RISD biological programs designer, Yang’s SURF experience involves using a range of technology — microscopy, micro-imaging systems, GIS, 3D scanners, high speed video cameras, and both 2D and 3D software platforms — to explore the visualization and representation of organisms from and the ecology of Narragansett Bay.

The project is serving as a case study for developing interactive, highly engaging and informative narratives with the goal of expanding public interest in and understanding of bay ecology in Rhode Island. The work also will further research on using the arts to effectively communicate important scientific concepts in ways that stimulate public awareness and understanding of complex ecological systems and the effects of human activities.

“It’s rare for a design project to have voices from completely different disciplines. Sometimes, it’s difficult to grasp what’s going on, but that’s a good challenge. It’s really important for me to learn how to communicate with people outside of my major, outside of design language.”

For Yang, this study meant more to create an emotional bond between people and aquatic organisms than to start an environment activism campaign.

“Instead of just saying use less plastic bags,” she says, “we want to try to evoke empathy between people and the marine organisms. If people start to care, they will naturally seek out ways to help.”

Next, explains Yang, the project group decided to develop a website with associated locations around Narragansett Bay, where people can visit and explore, and find QR codes that link back to the website. The information is geared toward children between the ages of about 8 to 12 years old in a story format that can be interactive both virtually and in person. On the website there will be creative activities for the children to have hands-on experience, as well as activities that encourage visiting these sites and observing the nature.

The project involved first heading out to the field, visiting beaches, kayaking Rhode Island waters, exploring salt marshes, and investigating water quality to gain insight on what organisms live in these habitats and the status of the ecosystem. Yang says Bissonnette, who holds a Ph.D. in Marine Science, introduced science concepts about the coastal environment and the various species.

Yang says she was drawn to the SURF program after a trip with a RISD arts and science class to the South American country of Guyana piqued her interest in science communication. The excursion included conducting a biodiversity count followed by making a final art piece for the class.

“That experience got me interested in the conservation side of industrial design, either product design or system design, and finding solutions to problems,” Yang says. “Before I went to Guyana, I cared about the environment, but after going there, I started to take actions to help. And I realized how important it is to have people actually experience nature to understand how important it is and change their behavior. The SURF project is the perfect platform for public engagement.”

Yang says she also gained valuable experience from the process, working with people from other concentrations rather than being limited to interaction with individuals in her own field.

“It’s rare for a design project to have voices from completely different disciplines,” she reflects. “Sometimes, it’s difficult to grasp what’s going on, but that’s a good challenge. It’s really important for me to learn how to communicate with people outside of my major, outside of design language.”

Unexpectedly, the project also opened Yang’s eyes to the coastal beauty of the Ocean State. She says she hadn’t experienced the salt marshes, seining, a plankton tow, or using a net to catch amphipods for the cuttlefish in the Nature Lab aquaria.

On Friday, July 28, at the University of Rhode Island, Yang will join more than 150 Rhode Island university and college students in presenting the findings of their summer research at the 10th Annual RI SURF Conference. The annual event marks the culmination of the SURF program, which this year involved 24 RI NSF EPSCoR students and 99 from the Rhode Island IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (RI-INBRE).

Story and photo by Amy Dunkle