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Episode 4: STEAMing Along

A Conversation with Beth Lenz, Keith Ellenbogen, and Syma Ebbin about Art and Science.

In this episode of On My Coast, we’re joined by Beth Lenz (Assistant Director for Diversity and Community Engagement at Hawai’i Sea Grant), Keith Ellenbogen (Associate Professor of Photography at SUNY the Fashion Institute of Technology & Visiting Artist at MIT Sea Grant), and Syma Ebbin (Research Coordinator at Connecticut Sea Grant & Associate Professor in Residence at the University of Connecticut) for a roundtable-style conversation about art and science. 





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Syma Ebbin  00:00

On my coast the waters are some of the busiest, the oysters are the briniest, and the sunsets are the most brilliant.


Keith Ellenbogen  00:06

The ocean is emerald green, and the wildlife is absolutely spectacular.


Beth Lenz  00:11

The water is warm and clear, the colors are vibrant and the coral reefs provide a home to many organisms that are tightly interlinked, living in a beautiful symbiosis.


Amara Davis  00:24

Welcome to the On My Coast podcast, where we share the stories of people on America’s coasts, whose experiences and challenges have inspired and been the focus of Sea Grant’s work for over 50 years. I’m Amara Davis,


Hallee Meltzer  00:38

and I’m Hallee Meltzer. The National Sea Grant College Program, or Sea Grant, is a federal-university partnership program that brings science together with communities for solutions that work. It was originally created through an act of Congress in 1966, and the state and national Sea Grant programs work together with community partners to create and maintain a healthy coastal environment and economy.


Amara Davis  01:01

These stories are relevant because they show the important and necessary work that can happen through diverse, inclusive collaborations.


Hallee Meltzer  01:10

In this episode of On My Coast, we’re joined by members of the Sea Grant network for a roundtable-style conversation about art and science. Portions of this live conversation have been edited for clarity.


Amara Davis  01:34

Traditionally, art and science have been thought of as separate schools engaging divergent skills, and although they’re different, they’re often complementary. Art can help people to visualize science in new ways, and it can bring science to people who may not traditionally think of themselves as scientists. It’s a way to bridge the gap between disciplines. We’d love for you to introduce yourselves and maybe share a bit about how you work within this space.


Keith Ellenbogen  02:00

Hi, everyone. My name is Keith Ellenbogan. I’m an Associate Professor of Photography at SUNY the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, and a visiting artist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT Sea Grant. I’m currently working on a project aimed at raising awareness about the marine wildlife off the coast of New England, and specifically, even within Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, one of 13 national marine sanctuaries in the United States that happens to be off the coast of Massachusetts.


One of the missions of Sea Grant is to connect with the public and to raise environmental awareness about our coastline, the marine life and all of the environmental challenges. As an artist, as a photographer, as a visual storyteller, as an image-maker, one of the challenges is how do you see these animals to even know how to care about them? And even if you can see them, how do you connect with them in ways that are at a human-scale to do things, from whales, to plankton, to cod? I think art is a very powerful, emotional way to connect with the public and with the scientists, and I often work collaboratively because they have the expertise in knowing maybe this algae is in a critical area and a habitat.


And so by taking pictures in those areas, or documenting some of that, maybe will raise awareness about some of those stories. I think that art plays a large role, especially in the modern world of how we communicate How it’s a language, really, of seeing things, especially photography. And so it’s an exciting collaboration. It’s an exciting place to work.


Beth Lenz  03:28

My name is Beth Lenz, and I serve as the Assistant Director for Diversity and Community Engagement at the University of Hawai’i Sea Grant College Program. I’m very excited to talk with you all today because science and art, as you mentioned, is such a great way to connect and engage across all levels, and to advance scientific and environmental literacy. Hawai’i Sea Grant just published our biannual magazine, our Ka Pili Kai, and we focus on science and art. And we talk about the misconceptions of this false dichotomy between science and art.


They’re well integrated, as you just said, there’s a long-standing history. There’s this left brain, right brain myth that we’re trying to bust because it is integrated, you’re stronger, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I mean, for the longest time scientists were artists, right? It’s that full connection, that whole self, that whole sensation of bringing it all together and delivering information. And so I think it’s been a disadvantage by separating them, but we can bring them together through performance, through artistic mediums of photography, painting, soundscapes, music, to really bring everyone together and really understand the rich world that we live in.


Syma Ebbin  04:50

My name is Syma Ebbin, and I’m the Research Coordinator at Connecticut Sea Grant. I’m also a faculty member at University of Connecticut and I teach a lot of science and policy courses, specifically marine and environmental science, and marine and fisheries. I administer all our funding programs here, Connecticut Sea Grant and also developed an art support award program, where we actually support one or more artists every year with a small award. And it’s been really rewarding to get to know a lot of artists and see their phenomenal work. And a few years ago, I was able to actually help curate a 10-year retrospective of all the work that was produced in this program. And it was really, really successful.


I coordinated a journal issue that was published last year, “Humanizing the Seas: A Case for Integrating the Arts and Humanities Into Ocean Literacy”. But it’s been just remarkable. My own paper in that special issue focused on integrating the arts into ocean literacy. And so I got to do a lot of research into, you know, what’s known about that nexus between the arts and sciences. And I think that what Beth was saying is spot on with scientists having been artists. I mean, you just have this legacy going back to the Challenger Expedition, where they had an artist on board, you have photographer Anna Atkins who develop these wonderful cyanotypes. So I think this idea of a polymath is just something that is there and they’re knitted together.


Beth Lenz  06:20

I wanted to echo your point, that by integrating science and the arts, this is a way to humanize the scientific process. I think that there’s been such a gap between the general public and how science is conducted, what it means, what are the results, how we inform the public, it’s a large gap. And I think, bringing science into this space, bringing it back into this space and recognizing it, it tells stories and it humanizes, creates empathy and creates a connection that science cannot do on its own.


Hallee Meltzer  06:56

So I think that actually started to answer sort of that question that we were about to ask, which why is it so important to communicate science using nontraditional avenues like art? I’m just curious, either you could add more to your response on that, or if anyone else would like to answer why they think it’s important to communicate science using these sort of methods and what benefits there are to society in doing that.


Beth Lenz  07:17

Yeah, I wanted to add, bringing science and art together is reconnecting to a traditional way. And I know for a while like, because of funding, science and art have been considered separate because of limited resources. But again, it’s at a huge disadvantage. And it’s reconnecting to former methods that are practiced across a variety of cultures, like in the Pacific Islands. And then I think, really recognizing that science is a creative endeavor towards truth, and understanding. And it’s so powerful with observation.


And the skills that you use in science are very similar to the skills and processes as an artist. Even art is an expression of different scientific elements like cyanotyping and photography and different mediums. And like I said, sound and music, all of this requires math or chemistry or physics, and biology. And it’s really awesome to be able to have people in science really recognize it and having artists like Keith recognizing the advantage of working together and really elevating these observations or these experiences and understanding.


Keith Ellenbogen  08:25

I think one of the things that’s so similar in many ways, and then where life sort of changes in different disciplines, is the power of observation is really just a wonderful thing. And I think scientists and artists are depending on even what discipline you’re in, not even just scientists and artists, look at it from different points of view and what they’re observing. It’s just an interesting case study, but it’s something I find really totally wonderful as I’m for one reason or another totally in love with these alewife river herring, which would be described as just a silver fish. And I find that description, so blase, in many ways, just the opposite of what it is.


They live in the ocean, they migrate into the river, and they’re often dammed and they can’t go up. And so the reason they’re dammed is human development has come in, and it’s made it difficult. But there are many people who are working to sort of help create these fish ladders and other ways around where the fish can sort of move through. And it’s one of the few times where fish come through in a way that the public can really see it in shallow water. And when you really look at this fish, it’s not really silver, yes, it has a silver tone and generally reflects, but when the light hits it, it actually has like a yellowish, pinkish hue. And you notice it’s not uniformly a mirror, but rather a tonality between warm hues of like really yellow and pinks. And one of the things that’s so engaging to me is, as you begin to care for these things and look at them even photographically, the challenges are you start to realize, like what is sort of interesting about this and you start to learn like it not only is just beautiful, which I think is something visually, but its ability to swim up turbid water.


And so, all of a sudden, you realize that the same challenges that people are looking for: How do you convey public policy? How do you transform a community to say it’s worth a while to protect this, to make that dam go through to protect these things? I think the images can start in language both in words and in imagery. You can appreciate what it’s like to go through extremely turbid water so fast. I mean that the power of this is just extraordinary, that these fish can fight that.


And so I think that what art does is begin to convey what science is really communicating in an empathetic way and I think is a point to really like leverage what research is doing or why certain choices may be better. Art can help inform that decision and help visualize a way that people can see it, in a way that they wouldn’t normally be able to. So I see these as wonderful complementary skills, really. And the overlapping differences is just people’s expertise on how they look at a problem, rather than how they solve it in any ways.


Syma Ebbin  10:48

I think he hit the nail on the head with the fact that art really stimulates and triggers our emotions. And so that’s a really big part of not only kind of cerebrally understanding facts, but connecting with a topic so that you can change your behavior or your values. I bring my students to the art gallery pedagogically to enhance their learning experience.


But I think beyond enhancing that cognitive experience, I think my question as a researcher was, can the arts help people be better stewards of the environment? And think there’s maybe not that much empirical data that would say, yes, but everything I’ve read says that you have to really resonate with something emotionally before you can like value it and then maybe go to changing your behaviors and becoming a better steward of this environment.


I think it’s, it’s critical, I think, not only does it enhance education and understanding, but it can actually help support the values that we need to create an environment that’s going to be sustainable moving forward.


Hallee Meltzer  11:52

We’ve talked a lot about projects that integrate art and science, when there’s a really obvious visual component to it that, like you said, evokes a feeling. But what about for scientific research or projects where there’s not an obvious visual component? How would you integrate art in that way to sort of help communicate it?


Keith Ellenbogen  12:09

I think that’s the most wonderful challenge there is. And that’s what you really want as an artist, is to say, what is a real problem and how do you visualize it in those ways? I think as creative minds, and I think scientists are creative as well, highly creative, how do you solve different problems? How do you look for solutions, and sometimes it’s just in a collaborative discussion, even in a round table thing of just talking about ideas.


So I think those are the kind of problems that are really fun. How do you really show what climate change is? It’s a hard visualization. And I don’t think people have really worked through what that necessarily visual answer is. But I think there are a lot of good people who are thinking about that. And I think the process of creative thinking leads to different avenues, and who knows where that ends up. But I think that’s an exciting part of what is being an artist, and is experimentation and learning just to express oneself, visually.


Beth Lenz  13:01

I think it’s important to think beyond just the visual representation, because not everyone is visual. There was an exhibit that I saw a couple of years ago in Philadelphia, or didn’t even see actually, I misspoke. It was a smell, like a scent exhibit. There was a scent artist, and it was depicting flowering plants that had already gone extinct. So based on the DNA, based on the genetics and working with a lab, they generated, what they would consider would be the smell based on the traits.


And so it was really interesting to think about, we think about soundscapes and birds and animals and their social cues, but you think about the ecology as smell. And then as a scientist, as a biologist, I hadn’t actually thought about that until I went to this exhibit. And I thought that was really creative and empowering.


Keith Ellenbogen  13:45

I love it. I also think a lot about senses we don’t have that animals have, and what that kind of means. And I spend a lot of time thinking of like, what is their mental, like whales or animals hear things in different ways in the water, or they sense things. And when it’s outside our own five sensory structure, how do you relate to something when you don’t even know what maybe a sixth element is? Or if you had that superpower, like what would you do? I think that’s great.


Syma Ebbin  14:12

I just saw a short animation about a whale saying that humans and whales have singing in common. It was really, really clever, I thought. But I know that IPCC, I think their website actually has a tab on art. So they have some collaborative artists who are on their website. And I know I personally have started to use a piece of art, it could be music, it could be a video, at the start of my classes to introduce topics. That’s something I found to be really provocative and useful to engage students in a topic.


Amara Davis  14:45

I think one of the ways that we tend to interact as kids first with maybe the marine environment is going to aquariums and it may not seem like art when you think of it, but people put those exhibits together and it’s not just science that goes into that. And one of the ways that you can interact at an aquarium with the animals is through those touch tanks.


And I think that’s another way to think about how these things feel and not feel on the inside, but how do they feel under your finger? What do they make you think of? How does that then inspire you moving forward? I think that’s one way that I never thought of art and science until you asked that question.


Hallee Meltzer  15:25

But it almost gets to sort of the outreach component and translating it beyond just the art itself. All art has meaning. But how do people interpret that meaning? And how do you use whatever you’re doing to display or to convey the information you’re trying to convey to evoke the feeling or the sentiment that you hope for?  What are some of the benefits of art in general as either a creative outlet for scientists or as a collaborative endeavor for artists? Like how is it beneficial personally, not just professionally, or for professional goals?


Beth Lenz  15:57

A few years ago, I had gotten a very small grant, and decided to create an exhibit based on the scientific research that was being done. And as I was talking to my colleagues at the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology and friends in the art community here in Honolulu, I realized this was a great opportunity to bring people together, and it expanded. And so we actually connected with six local artists in Hawai’i, and paired them with scientists. And as we were creating this project, scientists are coming up to me saying, oh, did you know I do ceramics? Oh, did you know I do photography? Do you know I do watercolor?


And so this ended up being over 30 people participating in terms of providing their artwork, and it was incredible to see how much creativity were in my, my colleagues, the scientists and how much they had kind of put it to the side and kept it quiet. I was like, this is such a great way to share what it is you’re doing. And so we had a month long free exhibit to the public. And it was just so fun, because we would put workshops together where people would be painting invertebrates, or we would have a film showing a screening with a panel.


We’re trying to catch all the senses to you know, like, touch, taste, hear, visual, and scent, like smell was the hardest one. But I think we paired it with food, because culinary arts, that’s also a science and an art. So it was a really fun endeavor. And I really hope we can continue to do that here, to really help provide the information. And I’m really excited because this exhibit was called SymbioSEAs, S-E-A-S, it was “SymbioSEAs: Connecting Science, Education, Art and Society Through Coral Reefs”. And it was about the research that was going on, the issues that we were confronting, the knowledge gaps that we still had, and trying to empower communities to see what can I do to make our place better, especially since we were dealing with a lot of coral bleaching events because of the warming. And what can you do in terms of preventing land-based pollution and stress.


So it’s really exciting, bringing people together of all ages. At opening night, you couldn’t tell who was a scientist, an artist or a visitor. And I really appreciated that space just being so open for dialogue. And people being just so excited to come in and feeling like they had something they could connect with.


Syma Ebbin  18:21

I think there are impacts on the artist and the viewer. And I’m just really interested in reading how artists talk about their work. And I think to some extent, art helps artists kind of process or metabolize their life, the events, things that they’re trying to present. And so I think art can be therapeutic. And then there’s this whole series of events that happens to the viewer of that art. And I think what the artist is doing is starting a conversation with that viewer.


So I always tell my students, when you go in to look at art, it’s asking you questions, there’s not right answers are wrong answers, but just engage with this piece and see where it takes you. I think that they’re benefits are both the creator and the viewer. I also like Beth, I was able to organize a few different events that were paired with an artist and a scientist.


So I had Kristian Brevik, who’s this amazing sculptor, he was getting his doctorate from the University of Vermont, and he does these sculptures of entangled ghost whales with paper mache. Whales are very large. And he had an installation at the New Bedford Whaling Museum and, really powerful and impactful. And he was speaking with a woman, Andrea Bogomolni, who’s a marine biologist at Cape Cod and deals with entanglement of seals and works with fishermen. And so it was so interesting to see where there was like kind of a nexus between their work and synergies.


And we also had a professor, Evan Moore, who does work on microplastics and mollusk filter feeders and we had a photographer who also won our art award and she takes photos of microplastics and other debris on the beach. And so again, it was just, it was really nice to see how that kind of work could intersect with each other. So I think it’s, it’s super important to pair them and you know, it could be within the same person. But for the audience, I think it’s so powerful.


Keith Ellenbogen  20:13

Well, I mean, my life sort of a blur between these two, so it’s hard to sometimes separate. But I think one of the things that’s been wonderful as part of this project that I’m on in New England, and working at MIT, was access to microscopes and photographing planktonic creatures. And what I began to do is working with some of the scientists, was learn one, the art of microscopy, photomicroscopy, but also to apply the skills as a wildlife photographer to the microscopic scale of a slide. And I think that that turned out to be a wonderful experience.


And then, which having students now work with me both to do that, it’s been really a joyful process of engaging others into the very thing that I like to do. I mean, ultimately, for me, the goal is to sort of build awareness, and to help sort of connect what’s in our ocean. But I think that education level, inspiring students to also come up with their own creative ideas based on initial work or work with other people. And just think of like, let ideas run, I found that to be just such a rewarding aspect of just being in a highly creative environment like that. And I love it, so there’s that part too.


Beth Lenz  21:23

I just wanted to highlight what I think is really interesting, too, that personal question of what this has done. I feel like I run into a lot of people, and we’ve heard this before of people who, feeling like they’re in conflict with themselves of like, oh, I wanted to pursue this but then I felt like I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a scientist. And that exhibit that I was able to direct was a great opportunity to say you can bring your full self and it is appreciated and admired. And one of the things that, I had done theater a lot in high school and college and I was really into improvisation and comedy.


But once I started doing graduate school and Ph.D., a put it like, “Alright, there’s no place for this”. But later in my Ph.D., I started realizing in science communication, how powerful improv, the exercises, the empathy, the listening, the connecting, the being in the moment, and how important it was for collaboration, how important it was for public speaking. And I finally really resurfaced all of that and brought it to my community.


And we would host workshops and teaching them how to be in the moment, how to communicate, how to have a dialogue with an audience, and using those skills that I had had from before and applying it. And I think this applies to performance art. And this can apply to public talks and telling a story, and doing podcasts and these moments, like all of it really helps. And I really appreciated my ability to bring it all together finally, and not feel like I’m suppressing a part of me and not being able to bring it forward.


Hallee Meltzer  22:55

Thank you at home for listening to this episode of the On My Coast podcast. We look forward to having you with us again as we continue to tell the stories of Sea Grant and the communities it serves.


Amara Davis  23:05

If you’d like to hear more from us, please like, share, and subscribe to our podcast, and follow us on Instagram @seagrant_noaa, Twitter @SeaGrant and on our Facebook page National Sea Grant College Program. We’re your hosts, Amara Davis and Hallee Meltzer, and on our coasts, there are rainbows beneath the waves.




Music: OUR PLANET, FineTune Music, Adobe Stock License ASLC-12A2C55E-6B2E494BBB
Graphic created using Canva


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