Interview with Lauren Cook, winner of the Journal of Fungal Biology and Biotechnology Sci-Art Prize

This year at the NHM Student Conference, Lauren Cook won the Journal of Fungal Biology and Biotechnology Sci-Art Prize. We recently spoke with her about science and art.

Hello Lauren, thank you for taking the time to talk with us. Could you tell us a bit about what you’re studying?

Hello and thank you for the opportunity to talk about what I’m doing! I’m currently 9 months into my PhD at the Natural History Museum, part funded by Royal Holloway and Cefas. I’m studying how we can use cutting-edge DNA technologies to monitor biodiversity from traces of organisms in the environment, otherwise known as environmental DNA (eDNA).

We are experiencing huge biodiversity declines globally from climate change, pollution, invasive species and land use change. In order to protect nature, we first need to know what’s there and how the populations are faring – something easier said than done! Identifying the many different species using traditional biomonitoring methods can be problematic, especially for those which are hard to find or look similar to each other in appearance, and you may need a different expert for every group of species you’re looking at. Furthermore, when biodiversity is monitored there is a tendency to leave out the things we can’t see easily, like microorganisms and camouflaged or rare species. The identification process can be sped up by using an organism’s genetic fingerprint, its DNA. The DNA fingerprints in environmental samples can then be matched to sequences in genetic libraries. This can be applied all sorts of sample types, from water, soil and air, to leech blood, footprints in snow, ice cores, ancient lake sediment, the surface of flowers, raccoon fur and reindeer saliva.

Specifically, my PhD is focusing on developing eDNA methods as a tool to monitor whole ecosystems, integrating microorganisms into a field currently dominated by macro-organism research. My research projects over the next 3 years will serve as examples of how this approach can work, for starters by using eDNA to track the invasive Chinese mitten crab, and monitoring ecosystem recovery at an oyster restoration site in Dorset.

 

What are your plans after graduation?

I’m not sure yet! I am currently exploring a few avenues… whether that’s staying in academic research, trying to become a lecturer, working at a biotech firm implementing eDNA methods, going into a policy role, or going full time into art, animation and science communication. I’m following my nose so will see where it takes me!

 

Your channel combines science, art, and education—could you tell us a bit more about that and your inspiration?

Through my studies I hope to contribute to meaningful science at the forefront of research. However, the advances of science are only going to have impact if people know about them. Presenting concepts in a visual format can make messages accessible for everyone, irrespective of background or expertise. Art and science can be extremely interlinked in terms of exploring and contributing to the world around us. As Leonardo Da Vinci said, “Art is the queen of all sciences communicating knowledge to all the generations of the world!”

While studying Biology at undergraduate level, I exercised my artistic bent by implementing a project for schools titled ‘Creativity in Learning’, which used art and crafts to teach biology to primary school children. I discovered that the vast majority of the class retained information best when they saw an image or video, or spent time creating some artwork. This value of ‘visual learning’ stuck with me and inspired by my talented co-artist big brother, Liam, I started experimenting with stop-motion animations to try and engage people during scientific presentations for my Masters degree! These helped to open the door to an internship at the British Ecological Society creating stop-motion animations and artwork to raise awareness for conservation issues. It feels as though I have found something of a calling! I am keen that my work and other collaborations between scientist and artist can spread the love for nature and inspire others to take action to protect it.

 

What has been your favorite art or video project so far?

I really enjoyed making a recent animation called ‘The New Urban Jungle’ for Wild Glades festival. My task was to highlight the joy, as well as the issues facing biodiversity and show some simple tips on how to support urban wildlife for your home, garden, window box or old boot! I was given free reign to feature animals and plants that I really like for example elephant hawk moths, hedgehogs and wildflowers, as well as sounds of blackbirds, robins and tawny owls! I’ve felt really encouraged by responses from those who have watched it saying that it inspired them to fix a bug hotel, plant a patch of wildflowers, dig a pond, or make a hedgehog highway with their neighbours!

Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=deE6As5Pg40&t=10s

 

What advice would you give to anyone interested in exploring science through art?

I would give two bits of advice:

  1. Practice makes progress – just get going, create for yourself and for friends and family. The more you create the better your skills will become, and the more you’ll get out of it. You don’t have to think of yourself as an amazing artist!
  2. Put your work out there – social media is a great way to connect with others doing similar things- you can reach out to people you admire and start adding to the community! It’s a useful exercise to have a go at summarizing your research in a visual way, to use for presentations or just so that your friends and family might be able to understand a bit better what it is you do. It’s a great way to open new opportunities and you never know where it might lead.

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