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Why Art and Science Go Together

An interview with Madi East, marine scientist, photographer and digital illustrator

Those who decide to study the natural world typically do so due to their fascination with its beauty and a strong desire to conserve it. Those who decide to create art are driven by similar passions. So, why do these fields exist in separate silos where students are encouraged to choose one over the other?

Our goal at ECOS is to show how these worlds intertwine, and sharing stories of those who are actively combining the two while pursuing research degrees is one way we illuminate the kinds of paths available to SciArtists. Madi East, a second year PhD student at the University Cambridge, spoke with us about how she came back to art during lockdown.

Hi Madi, can you tell us what you're working on and how that relates to your art?

"My PhD work is on understanding how corals build the beautiful and intricate skeletons that make up the foundation of a coral reef. I have always enjoyed having a creative outlet and love using art to showcase the beauty of the natural world, as well as to help share awesome science."

Have you always wanted to study environmental and marine science?

"It never felt like a conscious choice to study the environment, but I am not at all surprised that this is where I have ended up. Growing up in Sydney near the beach and bush, my room was always filled with dried gum leaves, treasures from the shore, and sometimes even whole tree branches that had come down in a storm."

"Once I started my science undergraduate degree at the University of Sydney, majoring in geology, biology and marine science, my collection of rocks, fossils and insects also grew. My honors thesis involved landscape evolution modeling of the Northeast Australian margin, looking at the interplay of reef growth and sediment transport, and a summer project led me to write my first paper on modeling subduction zones through time. I now have made the leap to a much more hands-on project for my PhD."

How did you choose your study subject for your current PhD work?

"I really wanted to conduct research that might contribute more directly to the climate crisis, and as organisms that sit firmly on the fence between geology and biology, the natural world and the physical one, corals felt like the perfect fit for my two loves. They are creatures that need all the help they can get, and quickly. I still have to pinch myself that I have somehow got lucky enough to study these incredible creatures. I am looking forward to the challenge of learning to grow corals under experimental conditions at ANU in Canberra as part of my PhD."

Looking at a coral under a microscope. Image captured by Madi East and featured in her PhD research story on the University of Cambridge Earth Sciences blog.

We love corals too! They are inspiring to scientists and artists alike. Have you always thought of yourself as both a scientist and an artist?

"I always loved drawing maps in the field, seeing the kaleidoscope of vibrant colors in a rock thin section under the microscope, photographing the insects and plants I was studying with my macro lens, and finding a way to incorporate drawings into any assignment. My interest and way into science has always been through the beauty of the natural world. So, at some level, I have always felt art and science to be intricately linked. But gaining the confidence to admit, both to myself and others, that I can be creative and a good scientist at the same time, is an ongoing journey."

"Gaining the confidence to admit, both to myself and others, that I can be creative and a good scientist at the same time, is an ongoing journey."

So, how are you starting to gain that confidence?

"Starting my PhD from the living room of a small flat, in lockdown during an English winter, I finally decided to use the extra time on my hands to give SciArt more of a real go and honor my long-held desire to create and share. After many years of favoring photography and watercolors, I have recently enjoyed developing my digital drawing and design skills, using the software Affinity Designer."

"If I think about something for too long, I won’t do it. So the ‘Reef Face Challenge’ organized by ECOS and Save Our Symbionts was the perfect opportunity to have a bit of fun, and finally start an Instagram page dedicated to SciArt. With a bit of free time one evening, I escaped the rainy winter, and took myself back to One Tree Island Reef in the Southern Great Barrier Reef, where I was lucky enough to go on a field trip during my honors year. I like to think that the face I created, using almost solely photos from that trip, represents what I must have looked like, wearing a constant expression of shock and amazement at what I saw above and below the water. It also unintentionally captured the wild and tangled mess that was my long curly hair after a week underwater."

"It felt liberating to create and share something thrown together quickly one evening. And having been so excited to discover a community of science artists, with an ethos I instantly resonated with, I was just happy to get involved."

We love to hear that our community of like-minded SciArtists has helped boost your creative confidence. Do you have any words of wisdom for other research students that might help boost confidence in research?

"Yes! A year into my PhD, these are my mantras and the things I have learnt:

  1. Learn to take ownership of your project, but don’t forget to ask for help when you need it.

  2. The biggest challenges might not end up being the academic ones.

  3. No one in research really knows what they are doing, so don’t worry, join the club.

  4. Learn to recognize what scares you and what you are putting off. Assign it the special title of ‘courage task’ on your to-do list and commit to addressing it for at least 15 minutes. Getting started is always the hardest part.

  5. Expect everything to take at least three times longer than you predict.

  6. You can’t do a PhD alone and talking with those in your field can save you a lot of time. If there is no one in your group who has worked on a specific problem you have, reach out and find someone who has. A real person wrote that super interesting and very helpful research paper, and they would probably be very happy to hear from you.

  7. Research is hard, and some days you will need to remind yourself of this quote from Charles Darwin: “But I am very poorly today and very stupid and hate everybody and everything” (Charles Darwin, 1861).

  8. At some point you have to stop planning and stop reading, and just give it a go.

  9. You can’t rely on passion for your subject alone to get you through all the challenges. As my fourth-year-PhD-student boyfriend reminds me, it is simply about showing up each day and doing what you can.

  10. Finally, there is no such thing as a typical path, or the ideal marine scientist. I have a research background in geophysics, I don’t know how to dive, I currently live more than an hour from the sea, and during my first PhD session in the lab, I had to be reminded how to use a pipette. But with a whole lot of excitement, a love of discovery, and a willingness to keep showing up, I am learning to rock the identity of an art-loving, marine geoscientist, with a slightly problematic obsession for the color turquoise."

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