by Andrew Saintsing, Andrew Saintsing, Graduate student at the Poly-PEDAL Lab , Berkeley
Our Art in Bio series frequently highlights the important role that art plays in science. Art is a form of communication that can distill complex and abstract ideas into concrete images and sounds. In other words, it is an essential tool for disseminating new insights both to the scientific community and to the wider public. But scientists don’t just make art because it’s important. They also make it because it’s fun.
I recently spoke to two ichthyologists, University of Kansas graduate student Rene P. Martin and Salisbury University assistant professor Noah Bressman, who consider themselves artists. Both Martin and Bressman are talented enough to sell their work, but they didn’t start making art with that goal in mind. Nor did they start making art for the sole purpose of communicating science. Making art is a fun hobby for both Martin and Bressman, and while they’d both encourage you to use art for outreach, they’d place a higher emphasis on cultivating hobbies you enjoy. Here are some of my takeaways from speaking to the two of them.
Pursue your passion, practice your craft, and other people will follow
Martin had always enjoyed sketching and painting, but by the time she started her master’s degree at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, she’d been out of practice for about a decade. In 2016, she created #SundayFishSketch on Twitter as “a personal motivator to practice every week and to put [her] art out on social media, mainly under the assumption that someone out there might or might not be like, ‘Hey, I’m looking forward to that art she posts every week.’” She knew that art could be a useful tool for scientific outreach, but she didn’t start #SundayFishSketch as a scientist hoping to engage the public. She started it as an artist looking for motivation and a platform.
“It ended up snowballing into this community of people that started posting their own art,” recalls Martin. “At some point, someone suggested we do weekly themes … It’s at the point now where thousands of people see it every week and upwards of 50 to 80 people make posts every week.” That community includes both scientists and artists, and it overlaps with other Twitter communities as well. Norte Dame postdoc Katie O’Reilly, who started #25DaysofFishmas in 2018, has collaborated with Martin on holiday themes. During December, “every Sunday, the theme [for #SundayFishSketch] is the fish that [O’Reilly’s] going to post. She gives you clues as to what fish might end up being. People draw what fish they think it is, and it’s really great because the people then post those drawings,” says Martin.
Because it provides a space where scientists can interact with people outside of the scientific community, #SundayFishSketch can provide a platform for outreach. “A lot of the time, someone will message me,” says Martin, “Recently, we had a shark biologist who just published a book on why sharks matter and was like, ‘Hey, can we have a theme associated with this book?’” Martin is open to those requests and recognizes how beneficial it can be to use social media to draw people’s attention to conservation and other important issues. At the same time, though, she never loses sight of her initial mission to create a space where people can share their art with a supportive community. Martin says, “It’s about the practice, and it’s about the art, and occasionally, it’s about the facts and the conservation.”
Martin uses #SundayFishSketch primarily as a motivator to practice her art, but that practice is ultimately beneficial to her as a scientist. She saves money and time when she can make her own illustrations for her manuscripts or for infographics that she uses in outreach efforts. Still, she doesn’t think every biologist needs to start posting sketches to social media. “If you want to practice and you really like art, this is where you can do that. But also, no pressure. There are other ways you can spend your free time,” says Martin. She started #SundayFishSketch because she genuinely wanted to practice sketching and painting, but there are plenty of other artistic media to explore for scientists who don’t like to draw.
Noah Bressman learned to clear and stain fish with Adam Summers in the summer of 2016. In the years since, he’s explored the possibilities of this process as an artistic medium. He creates distinctive imagery by physically arranging specimens, taking photographs, and manipulating the photographs in Photoshop.
Have some fun, and go with the flow
“I can’t really draw anything,” says Bressman. “But I took the [University of Washington’s] Friday Harbor fish course with Adam Summers in the summer of 2016. One of the things we learned was clearing and staining.” Clearing and staining is a method for visualizing the skeletal system of a vertebrate. It involves treating a specimen with a series of chemicals that digest muscles and some organs, and it leaves behind a highlighted skeleton.
The next fall, when Bressman moved to start his PhD at Wake Forest University, he realized that decorating his new residence with art from a gallery was a little outside of his price range. But he knew that Summers had made art out of images of cleared and stained fish specimens, and he decided to try it himself. The only problem was that he didn’t have the nice camera and lighting equipment that Summers had, so he turned to Photoshop. “I did something wrong and just kind of shifted the color wheel,” recalls Bressman. He liked the changes, though, and he decided to print the image out.
He went to FedEx Kinkos to print it on a big canvas, but then he got hungry on his way home. It was the summer in North Carolina, and he didn’t want to risk leaving his new wall decoration in the hot car, so he brought it into the restaurant. Inside, they were taking down some artwork, and on a whim, Bressman offered his. To his shock, the restauranteurs liked it and accepted his offer. Before long, word spread, and he was furnishing local breweries. He charged some money, but he didn’t demand much. He was even open to trades. When he went into one farm store, he saw a dead fish in their aquarium, asked for it, and brought back a print of it. In exchange, the owners gave him some honey.
As word of mouth grew, Bressman decided to use his art as an opportunity for science outreach. He would say, “Let me explain this to you and how this research technique [works]. Now the species that you’re looking at … this is an invasive species, and these are native species.” He started offering his art to local school classrooms, and he teamed up with other artists and even poets for public art installations. He experimented with more abstract arrangements, and people started finding deeper meaning in his works. They also began to offer him as much as $300 for a print. “It gave me a real confidence boost,” says Bressman, “But I like to have them low-cost, to have them out on display, getting people thinking.” Bressman didn’t start making prints to gain recognition as an artist. He just wanted to spruce up his living space. But when he saw the opportunity for outreach he had been given, he didn’t hesitate to seize it.
The COVID-19 pandemic slowed down some of Bressman’s outreach efforts, but he still uses art to engage with the public. After joining Salisbury University as an assistant professor, Bressman sponsored the Nanticoke River Invasive Fishing Tournament, in which anglers competed to catch blue catfish (Icatalurus furcatus) and northern snakehead (Channa argus). The winners received prints of the two species, both of which are invasive to the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Do what you enjoy, and be a community member who’s also a scientist
While Bressman happened upon his artistic side as an adult, he’s been an angler since childhood. “I’m genuinely a fisherman,” he says. “I won a kayak fishing snakehead tournament.” Those bona fides are important because he wants fishermen to know that he’s one of them; as a scientist, he wants to conserve fish populations so that he can continue to fish them in the future. Art is an amazing tool for communicating science, but as Martin says, “There are other ways to spend your free time.” In other words, art isn’t the only way to engage the public. Pursuing any passion can create opportunities for science outreach.
Bressman’s invasive fishing tournament is the perfect example. He’s recently begun researching the impact of northern snakeheads and blue catfish on the aquatic ecosystems surrounding the Chesapeake Bay. Both are invasive to the area. Northern snakeheads are native to Asia, and their presence in the United States since 2002 has generated a significant amount of trepidation. In fact, there have been at least five different Syfy original movies about killer snakeheads in the past 20 years. Fishermen are generally advised to kill them on sight. In contrast, blue catfish are native to the Mississippi River, and they’re generally not viewed with the same degree of negativity. However, blue catfish may pose a greater risk to the Chesapeake Bay watershed. “If you were to take all the life out of [a given tributary] with a net, including the plankton and the plants, and weigh it all, up to 70% [of that weight would be] blue catfish,” says Bressman. “They’re so abundant, they must be having effects.” Bressman and his research team need more data, though, to know for sure. And that means collecting specimens.
While blue catfish are relatively easy to catch with electrofishing, northern snakeheads are more elusive. Earlier this year, Bressman was thinking about how challenging it would be to collect all the specimens his team needed, but then he realized that they could “have perhaps hundreds of people collecting their fish from all parts of the river.” He secured funding from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and drew on his experience as a competitive fisherman to organize the Nanticoke River Invasive Fishing Tournament, which occurred on July 30.
Not only did the tournament bring him samples, but it also provided him the opportunity to educate the public about the role that every single person can play in checking the growth of blue catfish and northern snakehead populations. After all, humans are amazing predators. Bressman recalls a “big promotion event with radio shows and TV shows, news interviews, things like that. To encourage people to eat these fish. To have effects beyond the fishing tournament.” Politicians on both sides of the aisle even reached out to Bressman and his team to discuss potential policies. The team hopes to build on their success with another event.
The Nanticoke River Invasive Fishing Tournament was a great opportunity for science outreach, but that’s not why Bressman fishes. He fishes for the same reason that both Martin and he make art. He fishes because it’s fun.
Connect with Rene P. Martin on Twitter via @Lampichthys and participate in #SundayFishSketch
and read Rene’s work with co authors via our sibling journal, IOB
“Bone density variation in rattails (Macrouridae, Gadiformes): Buoyancy, depth, body size, and feeding“
Rene P Martin, Abbey Dias, Adam P Summers, Mackenzie E Gerringer
Integrative Organismal Biology, obac044, https://doi.org/10.1093/iob/obac044
Connect with Noah Bressman via Twitter @NoahwithFish
& Support SICB’s student scholarship fund by purchasing merchandise with Noah Bressman’s Bonez design
and read Noah’s ICB paper
Terrestrial Capabilities of Invasive Fishes and Their Management Implications
Noah R Bressman
Integrative and Comparative Biology, icac023, https://doi.org/10.1093/icb/icac023
and listen to both Noah and Rene discuss their research on The Fisheries Podcast
Exploring Amphibious Invasive Fish
Deep Sea Lanternfishes and #SundayFishSketch
Connect with science blogger Andrew Saintsing
Connect with Blogger Andrew Saintsing via Twitter @AndrewSaintsing