Science Festival Interview with Isla Myers-Smith
Isla Myers-Smith, Chancellor’s Fellow in the School of GeoSciences, studies the impact of a warming climate on shrub plants in the Arctic – the trees of the tundra. Her team, known as TeamShrub, is contributing to art exhibitions taking place at Summerhall. They are also presenting Tundra shrubs – Arctic time machines, a workshop during which visitors can prepare and examine shrub samples under the microscope.
Can you briefly explain the value of your research with tundra shrubs?
On TeamShrub, we are trying to understand how global change influences tundra ecosystems and biodiversity. The Arctic is warming more rapidly than any other part of the world, and there is growing evidence that plants are responding to the warming. Tundra vegetation change could alter carbon storage and trap more of the sun’s heat, which could feed back to the global climate. But we still don’t know how fast tundra ecosystems will change and what the impacts of that change will be for the planet as a whole.
What impressions do you hope to make on visitors seeing art generated from your Arctic fieldwork?
We hope that visitors to our exhibits will engage in different ways from traditional scientific communication and outreach. How can a thin slice of a shrub turn into a time machine that examines the history of a plant’s experience of its harsh Arctic environment? How can a drone photograph collected to answer scientific questions communicate directly the dramatic visual changes such as permafrost thaw, coastal erosion and increases in shrubs occurring in tundra landscapes? These are the questions that we hope that our Art-Science collaboration can address.
What do you hope visitors will get out of the experience of working with samples in the lab?
This is an opportunity for people to engage directly in a scientific activity and experience a typical day in the life of an ecologist. People tend to think of laboratories as inaccessible, locked rooms into which only scientists in white coats are allowed, doing mysterious things. In reality, a lot of the manipulations we do to get the data we need are very simple and only require a lot of patience and meticulousness! We hope the workshop will make science seem more accessible to the participants. Additionally, those samples come from remote places most people never get to see, but touching them, and using them to track events in time – like pointing out your year of birth – suddenly makes the big issues seem closer, tangible, and more relatable.
How does engaging with artists benefit your team?
By exploring the creative side of science and working with artists to explore the artistic side of scientific data, we can communicate both scientific and creative messages. We are hoping that this art-science collaboration not only communicates our scientific findings and the process of scientific data collection to new audiences, but that it might change the way we do our own science. For example, putting ourselves into the perspective of an Arctic plant alters our perception of the influence of climate warming on the ecosystem as a whole. And, viewing the tundra from above through drone photography is changing the way we perceive the rates and magnitudes of ecological changes on the landscape.
Why is it important to you to bring your research to a lay audience?
We are conducting our research to understand how tundra ecosystems are changing to inform global impact assessments, help local northern people predict future changes that they are observing in their homelands, and to connect the general public to the dramatic changes occurring in Arctic ecosystems due to climate warming. The Arctic feels very far away, but changes being experienced in the most northern part of our planet can feed back to influence our lives here in Edinburgh. Only if the public is engaged with human impacts on our planet, can political change occur to combat the situation.
The Contemporary Connections exhibiton runs between 11am and 6pm at Summerhall right up until 12 May.
Futher information on Team Shrub's contribution can found here.