What happens when PhD students and artists get together to communicate science?

A few weeks ago I was involved with a fantastic project called Co-Lab – Science meets street art. It was organised by Lee Constable, as part of her Master of Science Communication Outreach program at ANU. She managed to get 5 street artists and 5 PhD students together, and gave us the task of creating a mural based on the students’ research.

My part of the process was very easy really – I met James (also known as ‘Houl’, his artist alter-ego) in a coffee shop, we chatted and I tried to explain a bit about my research on the bettongs in Mulligan’s Flat. This was not as difficult as I thought it would be; James was clearly interested and seemed to understand what I was talking about (I hope!), and very quickly started to come up with some ideas for the artwork.

I think with this project it was important to get the match right between the artist and the student, and I am so glad I was paired with James/Houl. I was not only super impressed by his talent as an artist, but also how creative he is at integrating his art into its surroundings. He also already incorporates a lot of science into his art, in a really fun and engaging way. You can find heaps of examples of his work on his facebook page, along with his amusing and educational descriptions – these are some of my favourites:

Houl LizardHoul Bunyip

The actual event was held during floriade, at a ‘pop-up’ shipping container village by Lake Burley Griffin. The artists were painting in front of a live audience, which grew as curious passers-by came to see the mural take shape. By the time I arrived around midday, it was almost done and there was a small crowd watching the artists add the finishing touches. The range of different projects was fantastic – from the atomic scale looking at the molecular structure of crystals, to the cosmic scale of using lasers to move space junk.

Co-Lab combo
The artists at work – clockwise from top left: Beast, Smalls, Houl, Stylized Impact

It was really great to be able to chat to people about my project, using the art as a talking point to help get difficult ideas across. My project is looking at how bettongs act as ‘ecosystem engineers’ that modify the environment for other species, as beavers do by creating dams. Houl illustrated this concept by painting a little bettong engineer in a high-vis vest, holding a truffle in his hands and surrounded by the native lilies (Wurmbea dioica) that may (or may not!) benefit from its digging behaviour.

Houl and me and bettong
Houl and I with the finished mural – that bettong is very serious about ecosystem engineering

I have to say there were a lot of stereotypes being thrown around on the day, not least by the media coverage that said things like ‘this is a rare opportunity for these students to get out of the lab and speak to the general public about their research!’ (paraphrasing, but you get the gist – we are of course hermits who don’t have family or friends or lives outside research). But I think one of the great things about this project was the fact that it was breaking some of those stereotypes by getting all these people to work together and really try to understand each other. And it was all happening right in front of the public – as the artworks took shape, the scientists could offer suggestions to make the art more accurate, and also explain the significance to the audience.

I think everyone involved got a lot out of this collaboration, and it really is a credit to Lee for organising the whole thing. For me, it was a great opportunity to be able to see my work made into something that so many people can enjoy, and it’s always very gratifying to have people interested in your work. I think artists and scientists have a lot in common – we both have to think creatively and find connections between seemingly unrelated ideas. And I think we both have a lot to offer each other, in inspiring new ideas and ways of seeing the world. I hope the Co-Lab project and many others like it will continue in the future!

By the way, the mural is still there with no plans to paint over it any time soon – so go check it out! (it’s at Westside Acton Park, on the north end near the carpark)

Media coverage from the day: