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Professor Puts Artistic Spin on Marine Research
Iowa Ag Connection - 12/27/2018

May 2018, Terry Conrad found himself aboard the research vessel R/V Robert Gordon Sproul in the Santa Barbara Basin off the coast of Southern California. One of his jobs was to bottle mud brought to the surface from various depths of the ocean floor and pack it in coolers to be sent back to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), one of the world's leading organizations dedicated to ocean research and education.

For the University of Iowa assistant professor of printmaking, this was a bit outside his comfort zone.

"I was really nervous," Conrad says. "I felt like this was too much responsibility for someone who knew very little about the research being done."

Conrad spent nine days aboard the ship with the WHOI research group as they studied foraminifera. These single-celled marine organisms are tiny--usually less than 1 mm long--and adept at surviving in low-oxygen areas known as dead zones. Foraminifera may hold answers to some big questions, such as how some creatures adapt and survive in dead zones and whether they may be able to predict future climate-change responses in the ocean.

Conrad joined the research cruise as part of a science-through-art effort funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Seventeen artists are creating works using materials and inspiration from the WHOI research. However, Conrad was the only artist to assist the science crew aboard the ship, thanks in part to funding from a UI Old Gold Fellowship. The created works, including those by Conrad, will debut in an exhibition titled Adaptations to Extremes from Jan. 19 to Feb. 22 at the Courthouse Gallery in Lake George, N.Y. Conrad's work also will be on display at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution later in the summer of 2019.

Conrad's participation was the result of a chance meeting four years ago with cell biologist Sam Bowser at a gallery show in Lake George. Bowser specializes in the study of foraminifera and is an advocate of art/science collaborations. The two kept in touch, and Bowser alerted Conrad to the art/research opportunity with his colleague, Joan Bernhard, a senior scientist at WHOI.

Bernhard says she wanted to add an artistic element to the project to facilitate understanding between the public and scientists.

"Artistic works 'speak' to their audience in a vastly different way than do scientific data, which typically require extensive levels of technical training to fully understand," Bernhard says. "An informed public is required so that group action can assist with minimization of human impact on the Earth and its functioning. We hope science-through-art activities help facilitate that support."

After Conrad was invited to be part of the project, he learned all he could about foraminifera. He read books and toured the labs at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. He also asked lots of questions.

"Joan was really generous with her time," Conrad says. "It's a high-stress environment because so much of her research is based on these nine days at sea, and there's a lot of money involved--but also not enough money. But she took time to sit down on the boat's deck to talk about her research and answer my seventh-grade science questions."

When Conrad returned to the UI campus in late May, he got to work in studios in the Visual Arts Building and Oakdale Studio A. He says many of the other artists are exploring one aspect of the organism, such as a pattern. But he is taking a broader approach--both in what he's creating and how he's creating it.

While other artists may utilize one or two methods from their discipline, Conrad is working with a range of printmaking techniques, including engraving, etching, screen printing, laser-cut woodblock, and embossing.

"I don't know if there's anything cooler you can do than printmaking," Conrad says. "I'm interested in traditional printmaking, but also getting experimental with it."

Foraminifera build their shells--known as tests--by secreting calcium carbonate or by collecting nearby particles, such as grains of sand or bits of discarded shells, and cementing them together. Conrad sees similarities in the latter method and his printmaking style.

Conrad enjoys building tools out of found things. He made some of his inks from mud he bottled during the research cruise, and he built a printing press out of various items, including some discarded items from the ship.

"There's this relationship: me collecting to make my machines, and them collecting bits of things to build their homes," Conrad says. "The more I learned, the more it felt like a natural fit."

The sculpture-like presses that Conrad builds do not yield quick results. It can take up to four days for a print to be made on them.

"It's a really inefficient process, but it's important as a slow, evolving process, just like the foraminifera," Conrad says.

Conrad says he was surprised to find a connection between the "studio process" and "laboratory process."

"Often the questions and answers I get in the studio come from what I think of as play or going to unknown places," Conrad says. "I learned that the same is often the case for the scientists."

Bernhard says she too has benefited from working with artists such as Conrad.

"It's been a challenge because the artists do not necessarily know the language of science, making communication sometimes difficult and time-consuming," Bernhard says. "However, I find that using real-world analogies often speaks to the artists--and vice versa--hopefully laying the foundation for bridge building. Overall, I have gained a greater appreciation of aesthetics and how artistic renderings, even if abstract, can help convey findings both to the public as well as colleagues."

Conrad says this project has inspired him to seek out more collaborations outside the arts as a way to challenge and evolve his work. He also hopes it serves as an inspiration to his students.

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