Forest ecology, illustrations and jam sessions: How arts and science blend in Chris Gough’s lab – VCU News

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Biology professor Chris Gough’s the research papers are incomplete without the standard written explanations and graphics detailing his lab’s results. To improve the accessibility and general understanding of scientific articles conveying technical research on forest and wetland ecosystems, Gough involves science-oriented art students, who also participate in laboratory field research.

“Not everyone thinks like scientists and not everyone absorbs complex information the same way, so working with artists really facilitates and expands our ability to communicate which can be intimidating,” said Gough, Ph.D., associate professor at VCU. College of Humanities and Sciences. “Pictures can help explain complex scientific ideas to the masses. There is a lot of value in there.

Gough believes that clarifying the science using multiple approaches is essential for tackling the issues he studies – greenhouse gases, global warming, and climate change – and for educating the public on these topics as well. .

Visually expressing his scientific findings on forest ecology, ecosystem ecology, and plant physiological ecology is such an important part of Gough’s process that this fall – for the third time – he will welcome an art student to his lab. . TO Gough, the connection between art and science is obvious.

“When you think of experimental approaches, this is where creativity really comes in because most of the easy and relatively straightforward science has been done,” Gough said. “Creative science enables us to answer the most difficult and complex questions and to go beyond borders and disciplines. I think one of those ways is through the clever and precise illustration of complex scientific ideas. “

Gough in Monroe Park. “Not everyone thinks like scientists and not everyone absorbs complex information in the same way, so working with artists really facilitates and expands our ability to communicate which can be intimidating,” he said. he declares. “Pictures can help explain complex scientific ideas to the masses. There is a lot of value in that. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Complex ideas made visual

Creativity, in addition to making science accessible and fun, is a hallmark of the Gough Lab. Many of the dozen or so members of his research group – from undergraduates to postdoctoral fellows – are also musicians like Gough, who is a singer by training and has been a member of touring rock groups who have performed in venues. like the CBGBs music club in New York, the now-defunct Bayou in DC, and the flood zone in Richmond. Laboratory members often meet in the field.

“We don’t always have to communicate everything technically. And it’s a really useful exercise for us as scientists to have to communicate what we’re doing to those who aren’t scientists, ”said Gough. “We can use clever illustrations to convey ideas. For quantitative data and information, we can produce two-dimensional figures that plot the actual data. Both are precious, important and complementary to each other.

Gough said clever illustrations are especially useful for creating information that is difficult to communicate otherwise to someone who has less experience in an area or in a situation where they are trying to communicate a concept that may be new. for the scientific community.

“We don’t always have to communicate everything technically. And it’s a really useful exercise for us as scientists to have to communicate what we’re doing to those who aren’t scientists.

Chris Gough, Ph.D.

Isabelle Griffin, a graphic designer based in North Carolina and VCU School of the Arts A graduate who is inspired by the natural world, said she spent most of her time at the Gough Lab during her senior year happily processing samples. She first met Gough at an arts and climate seminar where he gave a presentation that she said opened her mind to the potential of data visualization.

“He shared graphics that represented the Amazon rainforest as a global carbon sink through animated wind and temperature data,” Griffin said. “Another slide demonstrated Richmond’s ecological racism and its effects on historically black neighborhoods by overlapping nearly identical maps showing localized frequency of reported heatstrokes, heat islands, foliage density, and grocery store locations.

“It stuck with me. The spirits behind these graphics had made the invisible truth visible using only measurements and colors. I was stunned.

She joined the lab to process data from wooded areas that Gough researchers used to measure roughness (small-scale variations in the height of a surface) as well as to help create data measurement materials and process. leaf litter. She designed patches and a lab t-shirt for the group, representing their field research experience. Griffin’s Communication Arts classwork this semester was inspired by forest ecology with a particular emphasis on the relationships between fungi and trees. The experience continues to inspire Griffin’s works of art, some of which adorn the walls of Gough’s laboratory.

Catherine McGuigan holds up a work of art.
Catherine McGuigan holds up a work of art. (Courtesy of Catherine McGuigan)

Artists alongside scientists

Gough enjoys working with artists who have a scientific basis due to their creativity and flexibility. But not everyone who joins the lab creates technical illustrations. Some, like Griffin, are interested in learning more about science in order to inspire and motivate their art in new ways.

In 2017, Catherine McGuigan was enrolled in Gough’s interdisciplinary program Green Walls Course, who amalgamated science and art students who built the Vertical Garden on the Ram Bikes Wall on Belvedere and Broad Streets in Richmond.

“I remember Catherine drawing a tree or something that was based on nature and I was in awe,” Gough said. “It turned out that she was also a double major in environmental studies, so we had a conversation about the complementarity of the arts and sciences. And then the next thing you knew, she was working in the lab, including as a field researcher at the University of Michigan Biological Station.

McGuigan, who graduated from the School of the Arts in 2018, also took Gough’s Forest Ecology course.

“He would give me insight into what they were trying to convey and using only the basic skills I have as a communication artist, I would give him feedback on the images that might make a bit more sense. from a viewer or reader perspective, ”McGuigan said of the process of illustrating the numbers for the Gough Lab. “All the concepts were conceptual. It was a lot to illustrate some process over a period of time and ask, “Do these images make sense in the context of what’s going on in the newspaper?” “”

Illustration demonstrating the phenomenon known as turbulent covariance, projecting carbon emissions as they interact with wind patterns and forest habitat.
“This figure demonstrates the phenomenon known as turbulent covariance. It is a technique of projecting, in this case, carbon emissions as they interact with winds and forest habitat,” McGuigan said. “The measurements taken are made possible by the flux tower, located near the middle of the figure. This is another way for us to measure atmospheric carbon.” (Courtesy of Catherine McGuigan)

McGuigan enjoyed the experience.

“It was a lot of fun, a really good multi-level learning experience and interesting to see the process of interpreting the information and then chewing on it, spitting it out and seeing what the finished visual product was,” said McGuigan.

The fall 2021 art student who will work in Gough’s lab is Erika Masis Laverde, a rising senior with a specialization in communication arts with a concentration in preparatory scientific and medical illustration and a minor in biology. She enjoys drawing fish, aquatic animals and insects. Masis Laverde connected to Gough’s laboratory via the VCU Undergraduate Research Office.

Butterfly pattern studies by Erika Masis Laverde made in digital media as part of a larger digital drawing project.
Pattern studies by Erika Masis Laverde made in digital media as part of a larger digital drawing project. (Courtesy of Erika Masis Laverde)

“I’m really excited to be able to do this and to have the opportunity to see how a lab works together,” said Masis Laverde. “It will be interesting and I think it will help me grow as an artist who wants to do work that will one day be used for scientific publications. It will be a great challenge. “

McGuigan said her time in Gough’s lab helped her realize there was a niche for the type of art she was interested in. creation, as a series of prints highlighting the features of Virginia State Parks.

“The things I created for the lab were definitely specific, but I was also able to find ways to incorporate natural elements into my art and do that. my thing that I did, ”McGuigan said.

An article titled “Forest Aging, Disturbance and the Carbon Cycle” that Gough published with illustrations by McGuigan was one of the 10 most downloaded articles in the journal New Phytologist in 2019. For Gough, this is positive feedback that the extra effort he devotes to visual interpretation is appreciated.

“If you want to reach your audience and you want people to be interested and engaged in your work, it has to be accessible and engaging,” Gough said. “And that’s true in the scientific world too. No one will read your journal if it is not useful to them.


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