The power of perspective

sittenfeldNatureLab42Part museum, part cabinet of curiosities, RISD’s Nature Lab opens the doors to discovery

The Edna Lawrence Nature Lab at Rhode Island School of Design houses a vast collection of specimens, a stunning showcase of the patterns, structures and forms found throughout the natural world.

An inspiration to RISD design and art students since its inception in 1937, the lab today serves as the physical and intellectual home of Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR on the RISD campus, according to Neal Overstrom, Nature Lab director.

“Historically grounded both physically and pedagogically in first-year Foundation Studies, the Nature Lab is now viewed as a scientific resource for the entire RISD community and beyond,” says Overstrom, also RISD’s partner liaison for RI NSF EPSCoR. “Most recently the Nature Lab has been supporting the broadening campus dialogue on the relationship between art, design, and science.”

Both EPSCoR and RISD Academic Affairs made major investments in research-grade microscopy and micro-imaging systems for the lab throughout the EPSCoR grant period. Such equipment, says Overstrom, like the Nature Lab itself, provides access to high quality instrumentation and opens a portal to the sciences for RISD’s visually oriented art and design students and faculty.

sittenfeldNatureLab36At the same time, the equipment sets the stage for the collaboration of art and science across the Rhode Island EPSCoR community. The resources — formally shared with EPSCoR partner institutions through the CoresRI network — include both compound and stereo microscopes with full-color cameras, a Phenom G2Pro desktop scanning electron microscope, standard and high-speed video cameras, and geospatial imaging workstations with large format multi-touch screen and plotter dedicated to geographic information systems (GIS).

“Together, this technology allows the exploration of pattern, form and structure, from the micro- to ecosystem-level scale in one location, all designed for rapid imaging and ease of use,” Overstrom explains.

An Ocean State resource

Use of the Nature Lab extends well beyond the campus borders of RISD’s community, hosting classes and colleagues from multiple Rhode Island institutions and EPSCoR partners. And, the facility has initiated relationships with local K-12 schools to develop projects and curriculum with opportunities for trans-disciplinary classroom activities, Overstrom notes:

“We are exploring ways that RISD can be not only a physical place where teachers can bring their classes for inspiration, but also a resource of collected research on art and science collaboration, exemplary STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) projects, and how we best teach and learn.”

As the only EPSCoR state to count a major art and design school among its partner institutions, Rhode Island stands poised to examine science questions from new perspectives and provide novel ways to address and represent information and data.

“Just as scientific theories are advanced one step at time, artistic ideas and innovations are built from many microshifts in seeing and understanding materials. The basis of EPSCOR is ‘experimental research,’ that is, research in which the path may not be linear or known, and which can lead to new ways of seeing a problem.”

To help the Nature Lab fulfill its role and push the boundaries of investigation and discovery, RISD maintains an ongoing investment in the facility and its equipment, including the purchase of additional compound microscopes and camera systems, a lab-grade refrigerator and freezer, and other wet lab equipment — instrumentation accessed by hundreds of students and faculty from every RISD department and utilized in many ways.

For example, one student used the equipment to study different surfaces of candy for a project that dealt with the topic of diabetes. A Textile Department Nature Lab project completed in Spring 2014 was driven by the questions: Why do forms in nature exist? What is the narrative of their existence? How does habitat give rise to behavior? How are features linked to the environment?

Overstrom says students investigated concepts such as biomimicry (using nature-inspired designs and processes to solve human problems) and functional morphology (studying relationships between the structure of an organism and the function of its various parts) to find links between creatures and their habitats.

“Just as scientific theories are advanced one step at time, artistic ideas and innovations are built from many microshifts in seeing and understanding materials,” Overstrom says. “The basis of EPSCOR is ‘experimental research,’ that is, research in which the path may not be linear or known, and which can lead to new ways of seeing a problem.”


Bold thoughts, bright vision

And, as much as RISD has influenced the science, so, too, has the science put its imprint on the art and design institution.

The 2014-15 academic year saw the introduction of a Nature-Culture Sustainability Studies program, the college’s first cross-divisional degree concentration. The new 21-credit concentration allows students to combine interests in sustainable design with the fine arts and science-art, along with the environmental social sciences and the humanities.

RISD’s commitment to engaging in multiple modes of inquiry can be seen in the increased number of science courses made available to the school’s students, now including 12 ongoing offerings and multiple individual courses, Overstrom notes: “Since the onset of the grant, we have presented more than 27 science-related courses, including the seven EPSCoR-funded studios.”

He cites the work of RISD professor, Dennis Hlynsky, a member of the EPSCoR Advisory Council and collaborator with the Susanne Menden-Deuer lab at the University of Rhode Island.

Hlynsky’s experimental videos depicting the multiple paths of birds in flight (along with his work with marine plankton and insects) captured attention of media outlets and sparked interest from scientists who see applications for his art in not only bird and insect behavior, but also in studying such phenomena as the flow and clustering of red blood cells.

Says Overstrom: “These kinds of insights could never have been anticipated had these researchers not seen his creative work. Another opportunity is to bring discovery to audiences that science may not normally reach.”

He also points to RISD faculty member Cynthia Beth Rubin and her Plankton Portraits EPSCoR Studio. Her representations of marine plankton, in collaboration with the Nature Lab and the Menden-Deuer lab at URI, found wide exposure at diverse venues, from the Cotton Club Outdoor Screen in New York, to the International Symposium on Electronic Art in Dubai. Her video, “TRACES,” from this collaboration, was included in the SIGGRAPH Art Gallery special issue MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

A new, permanent, full-time position at the lab — biological programs designer, funded by the Nature Lab and RISD Academic Affairs — will play a critical role in expanding Nature Lab course content and work with partners in the EPSCoR community.

The equipment and the exhibits, the expanding capabilities and collaborations — the sum total extends far beyond the academic curriculum. The far-reaching implication of this investment lies in how we make sense of the world around us and find answers to the complex problems that elude easy resolution and traditional thought processes.

Oversrtom notes, “Artists and designers explore problems in ways that often have unpredictable outcomes.”

By Amy Dunkle | from the Spring 2015 issue of The Current

Photos courtesy of RISD Nature Lab