Birds, Bees, and Beyond: The Nature Lab Evolves

Eury Kim
→MFA Graphic Design 2019

 In the light of longer days and so-called warmer weather, it’s time to talk about the birds and the bees—realbirds and realbees. RISD’s Edna Lawrence Nature Lab houses a unique and vast collection of plant and animal specimens. Here, students can observe nano-scale to life-size objects, contemplate the organizing principles of life, and incorporate their findings into their studio work.

Upstairs at the Edna Lawrence Nature Lab. Photo: Matthew Clowney (MFA Photography 2008)

While celebrated for its natural history collection and earthy character upstairs, the Nature Lab has more recently been constructing a whole new world on its semi-underground floor. This new makerspace focuses on bio-design and bio-art initiatives and offers specialized equipment for student use, such as a desktop scanning electron microscope (SEM) and geographic information system ​(GIS) mapping programs. The Nature Lab also supports science courses addressing sustainable living, biomimetics, and biophilia.

Downstairs at the Edna Lawrence Nature Lab. Photo: Matthew Clowney (MFA Photography 2008)

As an undergraduate at RISD more than ten years ago, I occasionally peeked into the drawers of seashells and skeletons here, and now I’m back, working as a graduate assistant and witnessing an evolution. Over the past semester I interviewed staff and students about the past and future of this unique resource. The reflections below, compiled from various conversations, demonstrate the Nature Lab’s role as an archive for natural specimens; a space for innovative experiments at the intersection of art, design, science, and nature; and a community of diversely likeminded and passionate colleagues.

With thanks to:

Jen Bissonnette, Biological Programs Designer
Benedict Gagliardi, Lab Coordinator for Imaging and Aquatics
Kylie King, Graduate Research Assistant (Interior Architecture 2018)
Peter Lokken, Graduate Research Assistant (Furniture Design 2018)
Lucia Monge, C-AIM Coordinator
Ann Motonaga, Graduate Research Assistant (Architecture 2018)
Neal Overstrom, Director
Betsy Ruppa, Lab Coordinator
Ye Tian, Graduate Research Assistant (Landscape Architecture 2018)

How did you arrive at the Nature Lab and what is your role here?

Neal Overstrom: I have always been interested in marine science and marine mammals, and my graduate degree is in zoology. In the 1990s I served as project director at Mystic Aquarium during a major expansion. I worked with remarkable architects, landscape architects, and exhibit designers, and when that project ended I really wanted to explore design. So I undertook a second graduate degree in landscape architecture and shortly thereafter found this opportunity here. They were looking for a new director to take things in a new direction—someone with a background in zoology and design. That was in 2010.

I see my role as facilitating connections between disciplines. Most recently we’ve expanded the staff so it’s also my role to provide opportunities for a remarkably talented group of people to further connect with the campus community, to bring their expertise to students in novel ways.

Benedict Gagliardi: My background is in entomology. For my master’s degree, I studied a particular group of moths and their caterpillars. The hard science part of it was describing caterpillar morphology using light microscopy and scanning electron microscopy. I was always interested in teaching but I wasn’t terribly fond of academia. Too much about scientific academia struck me as esoteric. It was serendipity that brought me to the Nature Lab. I moved to Providence, and walking around one day, when I saw jellyfish in the window of some old building, I thought “What is that?” Someone told me it was the RISD Nature Lab. Soon I looked to see if they were hiring and that morning they had posted my position!

A couple of examples of what I do: If someone comes in here and says, “I have this weird seed and I want to get some images out of this part of it,” I will teach them how. Or a class will come in and I’ll explain how to use the stereoscopes. I’ll say, “I’ve put an insect in a little box, and I want you to look at it,” and someone will inevitably go, “Ewww, insects! Ewww, it’s all hairy!” Then they put it under the scope and they say, “Wow, I didn’t know that the hairs branched out like that. Look how shiny this part is, or look at all that texture.”

Betsy Ruppa: I have a BFA in painting and drawing and a minor in art history and went to grad school for printmaking. I worked with the letterpress for a while and have been in academia for a long time. I’ve been here off and on for eighteen years. I first came to the Nature Lab because my husband got a job at RISD. One of the first things he told me to do was to go to the Nature Lab—“You’re gonna love it!.” I walked in and I said, “I want to live here.” The director at the time suggested I volunteer, so I said, “Okay!” I volunteered off and on for twelve years. After my husband’s death I came back to volunteer quite a bit and then a job opened up and I’ve been here since.

My main job is training, managing, and scheduling twenty-five to thirty undergraduate work-study students. I teach them how to maintain the animals, repair and clean the skeletons, pin insects, make specimens, and take care of the plants—basically everything we do in here. I also help students find what they are looking for since I know the collection quite well.

Jen Bissonnette: I have an undergraduate degree in biology and a PhD in marine science. I’ve taught at the university level, I’ve worked in state agencies and for the federal government. My professional trajectory was always concerned with sustainability and how we get people to engage more deeply in the natural world in a way that will encourage them to conserve it. Ever since college I’ve also had an artistic practice on the side where I draw and I paint. I started taking some evening CE classes at RISD and thinking how great it would be to work here and combine these two worlds. Then they posted this position and it looked like the job was made for me!

I mostly work with students who want to engage in a kind of synergy of natural science with visual making skills. I help lead them into a deeper understanding of the science and the sustainability concepts that they’re intrigued by but maybe don’t know how to delve deeper into. I feel fortunate that we offer courses so students can get credit for their creative work. I’ve done some independent study projects with students and they come up with really conceptual ideas. So it’s great for me to stretch my mind, too.

Lucia Monge: I decided I wanted to come to RISD the moment I learned about the Nature Lab. I was in Peru teaching science and I came to study in Sculpture and started working here as a grad student. When I graduated I became Operations and Engagement Coordinator, so while my current position is new to me, I’ve been here for four years. I coordinate and do research for our National Science Foundation Grant, C-AIM, visualizing scientific information to inspire others to care and learn about Narragansett Bay.

Ye Tian: I first came to the Nature Lab to do flora and fauna research for a group project. I was really impressed by the space and just wanted more time to see everything else. I am using GIS to make a 3-D map of the campus, and I also help people in the microscopy room. GIS is a great tool to visualize our built and natural environments, from a single street to global scale.

Peter Lokken: I studied biology and environmental engineering and served in the Peace Corps in Bolivia and Panama, working with water treatment and delivery. Then I worked in the alternative biofuels industry for several years before realizing I’m most interested in building and designing. The Nature Lab is integral to my experience here. It’s like the glue that ties together my past life and my current studies. My big project here is designing and creating the biophilic makerspace ceiling, which is slated for completion in May 2018.

Ann Motonaga: I was interested in the Nature Lab as a resource to study different materials at various scales through the microscopy equipment. I co-led a workshop series, which is a great way to share the Nature Lab with students who may not know much about the space.

Kylie King: My research interests are at the intersection of architectural design, spatial politics, and post-human critical theory. I first became interested in the Nature Lab when I was reading about citizen science projects connecting global climate change with local design thinking in Southern New England.

What part of the Nature Lab’s upstairs are you most drawn to?

BR: It has a very cabinet of curiosities vibe to it that makes you want to explore and discover things. The best part is that it’s an unmediated, hands-on collection. In most museums you only observe. The Nature Lab is personal and sensual because you can touch things. It’s unique among museums in that way. It’s liberal in terms of how you use the space, too: you can draw in here, you can eat in here. We’re so accessible and willing to work with you. That’s probably my favorite thing about it.

NO: It’s not only the collection, but the space itself: the high ceilings, the indirect light, the creaky floors. It’s eighty years old and has its own cultural identity. It’s an active space, so there’s a richness in the patterns and textures that surround us.

AM: I think the collection upstairs is incredible and amazing. You can travel around the world in one sitting! I also enjoy looking at Edna’s pottery and other collections we have downstairs that aren’t on display.

LM: It’s a constant place of energy and excitement. Everyone working here is great and they ask interesting questions and use the resources in creative ways. The collection is endless, so depending on what I’m interested in at any point in time, I can always discover something new.

Are there any misinterpretations about the Nature Lab you would want to correct?

NO: Our historical context tends to define how people perceive the space, but we’re hoping that people will expand beyond that context now. We’re working on piloting a bio-design makerspace, we’re bringing in more living systems, and new technology, cameras, and microscopes. We are looking at the natural world at multiple scales. We don’t want to lose sight of the collection upstairs, which is as relevant today as ever, but there’s another dimension to the Nature Lab, one that  invites students to investigate more contemporary research topics.

BR: I think the misinterpretation about the Nature Lab is that you come in here to draw from life. If you want to practice your observational skills or your visual literacy here, you can, but that would be a simplistic view on its own.

JB: We’ve certainly heard things like, “It’s a petting zoo,” with all the taxidermy. It’s a shame to me if people don’t know we have high-speed video cameras, 3D scanners, GIS stations, and all the programming we’re doing.

How do you understand the intersection of science, art, and design? Do you think it’s important for students to integrate nature into their creative work?

AM: Where I think they intersect is in the art of making—whether a fine art piece or a design or an experiment, there is a connection between the hand and end result. And over time, the owner of that hand becomes evident in the work. There is a lot to pull from nature that is applicable for many, if not all departments at RISD. Nature provides structural cues and beautiful pattern language.

YT: I’m really excited to see art, design, and science cooperating and sharing knowledge. All of these fields are usually mysterious to the public. Art and design can be a tool for visualizing elusive elements in science. The social and educational values are unquestionable.

PL: Science tends to be more exacting and must handle a great deal of scrutiny if it is going to survive. Art and design is less so and relatively more subjective. However, this can open the door to other ways of viewing problems. Despite popular understanding, there is a great deal of creativity (and often with much higher stakes, as scientific creativity often results in millions of dollars and thousands of hours spent) associated with scientific discovery, it is just a different form of discovery. There is a great deal of technical savvy and knowledge associated with art and design, which is also under-appreciated. As methods of problem solving there is a great deal of commonality, but I don’t romanticize art and science as being the same. They aren’t. The main problem in bridging the gap between the two isn’t that scientists couldn’t understand art, or that artists couldn’t understand science, but that both require such dedication that there simply isn’t enough time in the day to do more than just dabble with the other.

I’m not sure it’s appropriate for all students to integrate nature directly, but I do think that students would be remiss in not acknowledging that nature is ingrained in our nature and our nurture. Whether we consciously appreciate that or not, we are surrounded by natural form, nature’s design, and to ignore that is to ignore a part of our collective evolved experience as a species.

KK: Biophilic design may use mimicry of life sciences to produce aesthetic objects, architectural form, or even interventions in micro-scale living systems, yet it’s dangerous to use scientific knowledge merely for the end of aesthetic consumption. Science and technology as they intersect with art and critical design is a crucial site of disentangling terms of profit, infrastructure, flows of capital, value systems, and logistics.

LM: Our fate is dependent on the well-being of all forms of life, and I think it’s essential to have nature at the center of art and design education. We can’t assume that science and technology alone are going to solve all of our environmental challenges. Nature is a great teacher. If we think about the design process, it is very close to the way nature adapts and evolves over time, just at a different time-scale. Studying nature in an art and design context allows endless entry points. If we observe an insect’s legs, I can appreciate their form from a sculptural perspective, while someone else can appreciate the mechanics of how they articulate, and someone else can appreciate the texture or color. You may say that you are not interested in nature, but it’s harder to claim that your work is not related to nature.

JB: The notion of eco-literacy is more critical now than ever. We talk about literacy in terms of being able to read a book, or that everyone should know how our government works. I feel we all need environmental literacy as well—to be able to navigate the world mindfully and intelligently and understand how we affect the world.

Albert Einstein once said that problems cannot be solved with the same thinking that created them. By bringing artists and designers into the sciences—particularly around sustainability— we have a solutions-focused mindset outside of the norm. Sometimes it’s a challenge for scientists to understand artists and designers and vice versa. But in some ways this works in favor of the process, because artists and designers don’t have a lot of assumptions about what will work or what the process should be.

NO: I think because nature itself is transdisciplinary, it can be approached from multiple perspectives and all levels of understanding. We need to ensure that we are not creating artificial barriers within our own disciplines, even with respect to science. The ability to come into this space and wear multiple hats simultaneously is our best opportunity for new kinds of discovery. So I encourage students to look at science as just another mode of inquiry. I think students can use the collection best when they approach it from both directions, and that means taking science courses, understanding the history of science, and knowing the body of work by scientists as well as those by artists and designers.

Do you feel that nature is often overlooked in the digital age?

PL: On the contrary, I think the digital age is, in a paradoxical way, reuniting us with nature. I’m seeing an appreciation of nature increasing alongside the digital revolution. This is fortunate and current, and I would not have said the same twenty years back.

BG: I think technology makes things too easy, too immediate and too simple. You take a picture of a sunset and you go, “That was cool.” You put it on your phone and you show it to people once in a while, and then you forget about it. But if you stood there and really thought about the colors involved and watched the lengthening shadows and listened to the birds that were starting to call and the birds that were not calling anymore, it’s a deeper experience. I think challenging yourself to observe—I don’t even want to say in a more old-fashioned way, because it’s not old-fashioned—to observe deeply, without the aid of anything but your own senses, is an important skill.

AM: Coming from the software industry, I think we see that with technology and nature, each enables the other. For example, sustainability research is aided by technology, or ergonomic studies push the design of digital tools.

LM: Some think of nature and technology as opposites or either/or. I believe that’s unrealistic because they co-exist in our lives. To me the challenge is to think critically about technology so that we recognize its value and potential but still remember to organize our thoughts and strategies so that we don’t forget the value of being outside and looking beyond our screens.

Neal, to wrap up, how would you frame the vision of the Nature Lab?

NO: Stephen Kellert, the social ecologist who pioneered the theory around biophilic design, noted that we have often measured human progress by the degree to which we separate ourselves from the natural world. I think we are coming to believe that the opposite should be true. We understand the interconnectedness between all systems. We also understand that we have two fundamental challenges in terms our life on Earth: one is exploitation, overuse, and over-harvesting, and the other is waste. Everything else cascades from those environmental challenges. Our vision for the Nature Lab is to advance art and design practice by promoting an understanding of all living systems, providing tools and expertise for their investigation, and inspiring an appreciation for the critical relationship between humankind and the natural world.