When environmental toxicology meets design
During the last months I have been thinking about how to communicate my PhD project to the general public. As a scientist, I explain my work with graphs and figures. But a figure which is easy to understand to my colleagues or peer reviewers, will find it hard to attract the attention of someone outside science.
I study how Atlantic cod respond to environmental pollution. Ocean pollution is a big problem and using cod as a bioindicator species will help us to get a better understanding of the effect of pollution in the marine ecosystem. Cod, as well as humans, are exposed to many different pollutants that can alter physiological process. This may sound scary, but luckily, our bodies are well equipped with different processes that help us get rid of them. The aryl hydrocarbon receptor (Ahr) is a very important protein that modulates the synthesis of enzymes involved in detoxification. During my PhD, I have been studying how pollutants modulate the two cod Ah receptors and when and where they are expressed during development.
Often, my friends and family ask me: “Libe, what is your PhD about?”. After almost four years being a PhD candidate, I have figured out that the easiest way to answer to this question it is to show photos of what I do in the lab. I always get some attention by showing cod babies which look more like aliens than fish or big and fatty cod livers sliced. In these moments I realize how nerdy my photo gallery looks like, but these photos are indeed worth a thousand words!
I do have a lot to say about my science, but I miss the tools to communicate it to a larger audience. That is why I had the idea of using an artistic approach to explain my research. At the end of August, I contacted the artists and curators Zackery Denfeld and Cathrine Kramer and discussed a possible collaboration. Zack and Cathrine have been working with scientific communication projects associated to the Science Gallery in Dublin for 10 years and they teach the course “Design for NonHuman Clients” for 2nd year Bachelor Visual Communication students at the faculty of Fine Art, Music and Design, UiB. After a brief meeting, they suggested using cod as the non-human client in this course so their design students could come up with different creative ideas.
I went into the classroom and explained the students my research. The students took notes and afterwards the whole class discussed pollution and societal implications, like the proposed oil and gas activities in the cod spawning area Lofoten. The students also interviewed me and asked different questions from “What is it the most important message of your research?” to “What kind of artistic performances do you like the most?”. The students worked on their projects for a week, which included visits to the aquarium and Bergen Maritime Museum, and I participated in one round of feedback prior to the final presentations.
I was amazed by the variety of ideas from the seven different projects!
A “cod-tail evening” event with a panel debate about cod and cocktails inspired by cod and pollution, a horror house using pollution thematic in order to scare us about the future, a public engagement event discussing politicians opinions about oil prospecting, a line of intimacy products aim to reduce the use of plastics and hormones, a protest from cod setting banners with messages to humans in the sea at key spots in Bergen, a pollution guide of Bergen showing different polluted spots in collaboration with Bergen Kommune, and finally a colouring book only in black full of drawings illustrating the effect of pollution in the ocean.
The students were very engaged during the process and some of them were even excited about the idea of bringing their projects to life outside of the course. The experience of working with artists challenged me in explaining my research in a clear and concise way. It was very giving to see their growing interest about the nasty effects of pollution throughout my talk. Anthropogenic pollution is a real and big threat to both us and the environment, and that is why it was very important to me to find an appealing approach which would help me communicate my science. Interdisciplinary collaborations may sound like a lot of work, but honestly, I am very impressed of how this project turned out after only two weeks. Encouraging students to put up small projects like this one should definitely be on UiB´s agenda!