Skip to Content
Art inspired by science: student researchers unleash their creative side

Art inspired by science: student researchers unleash their creative side

June 17, 2024 at 12:09pm

Can art and science really be interconnected?

Scientists collect data, conduct experiments and make discoveries. Artists tell stories and tap into life's intangible spaces to shed light on the human condition. The two roles seem light years apart.

A group of FIU student researchers are bursting through stereotypes and showing us that art and science are actually two sides of the same coin. These students are using their love of nature and scientific inquiry to fuel their creation of art in a variety of mediums from drawings to crafts to photography.

The student researchers are part of the Florida Coastal Everglades Long Term Ecological Research (FCE LTER) program, which is based at FIU’s Institute of Environment. The program has collected the most comprehensive, long-term data instrumental to understanding how the Everglades is changing over time. 

While conducting research in the Everglades, the students are often moved to wonder as they stare at the sun glimmering through the trees or as they observe the patterns and properties of the wildlife and organisms they are studying.

This awe has led them to create. It has propelled them to embrace the arts, or in some cases, to renew their artistic activities with science in mind.

Paige Kleindl, a Ph.D. candidate in biology, is one of these students.

“Creativity is at the heart of science and art,” Kleindl says. "Illustration and visual depiction have always been an integral part of understanding science." 

Two years ago, Kleindl and several of her colleagues began meeting informally to talk about their artistic endeavors. The group was composed of their networks — students who were also researchers from the FCE LTER program. The meetings eventually became FCE LTER student group activities, and the crafty scientists became prolific artists.

Fast forward to today, and the group has presented two annual photography competitions, a one-day art showcase and, most recently, a two-month-long art exhibit at the Glenn Gallery at FIU’s Biscayne Bay Campus. The exhibit ended in May, but its beauty left a lasting impression on fans and artists alike.

“It was so much fun,” says Kleindl, who organized the exhibit. “It was great to see the pride on the artists' faces at the exhibit opening. We create art for fun. It’s something we do because we love it, and we love depicting nature. Being able to present these creative depictions of the Everglades to other people was amazing.”

Counterclockwise from top: "Prairies in bloom" by Carlos Pulido; a close-up of a blade of sawgrass by Tommy Shannon; a view of a cormorant and its detailed eye by Anne Sabol.

“The name of the exhibit was 'More Than a Scientist’ because it highlighted the multifaceted nature of scientists," Kleindl adds. "People may see us as solely analytical. But scientists are so much more. What we do takes so much passion. That's what motivates us to wake up at four in the morning and travel to the wilderness in 100-degree weather just to take samples. We are passionate about our research, and we are passionate about understanding and preserving the natural world. And that feeds our creative side.”

The exhibit featured 50 pieces of art created by 10 students and one staff member. It showcased a diverse range of artwork, including black ink drawings, photography, traditional scientific illustration, linoleum prints, watercolors and embroidery, among others.

Check out a few of the works created by some of the scientist-artists in the group.

Linoleum prints by Carlos Pulido


Snail prints

Carlos Pulido, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Earth and Environment, says that art became a way to re-energize and re-focus on science. He enjoys creating nature-inspired linoleum prints (like the one pictured above). 

“I began creating linoleum prints as a way to unwind from the rigorous demands of my Ph.D.,” he says. “This artistic expression unexpectedly enhanced my research, offering a tactile, hands-on counterbalance to my digitally-heavy routine. I've found that the entire intricate process — from sketching to carving and printing — not only helps with my mental clarity, but also enriches my approach to problem-solving in my scientific work.”

He adds, “I didn't anticipate discovering a community of artists within our own research working groups. Connecting with fellow researchers who also engage in artistic pursuits inspires me and broadens my perspective[s], both personally and professionally.”

From left to right, embroidery art by Hanna Innocent: "Pink Gomphonemas on parade" depicts the genus ofo Gomphonema in Lake Okeechobee; "Through the looking lens" provides a snapshot of Lake Okeechobee's soft algae under the microscope. 


Embroidering micro-algae 

When Hanna Innocent was in elementary school, her grandmother taught her the art of embroidery.  

"[She] would buy me embroidery kits when we'd visit during the summer," Innocent recalls. "During COVID, I picked it up again and it was like muscle memory."

Today, Innocent is a master's degree student in biological sciences -- and she weaves science into her artistry. Recently, she created her own embroidery patterns to celebrate the organisms she researches: micro-algae.

"Micro-algae and diatoms are such tiny, beautiful organisms that tend to be overlooked by everyone," she says. "The more I learn about them in my career the more I fall in love with them, not only with how important they are to life on earth, but also with how complex and intricate they can be. I started off drawing them as a way to better understand what they look like, but it turned into depicting them in several different art forms that I enjoy creating in. I see micro-algae as an array of beautiful colors and rainbows, and I want the rest of the world to see them too."

Tiny beauty

Graduate biology student Anne Sabol believes photography can help expand the reach of science. "I work in the conservation realm, and a captivating photo can draw in a new audience and get them to care about the animals we study and are trying to save in a way that traditional science publications cannot."

The result? Sabol snaps away photos of the beauty she witnesses in the Everglades. Recently, one of her photos of a cormorant earned second place in the student group's photography competition this year. 

In the photogoraph above, she captured a unique view of a tiny, intriguing animal that is usually about an inch or two long: a lettuce sea slug. "I chose this picture because it helps everyone appreciate the tiny creatures we might overlook."

Sabol will graduate with her Ph.D. this summer. 

The mangrove forest

Tommy Shannon, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biological Sciences, began his journey into photography while taking pictures under the microscope and in the field. His goal was to photo-document the algae research he was conducting. But things began to change as he realized the beauty of the visual medium.

“Photography took on a second life as an art form when I discovered I could use my photos to share the wonder I see in the natural world,” he says. “In my research I get the privilege to see and experience amazing things that are inaccessible to most people. I feel like photography enables me to make these experiences accessible to a much larger group of people and to share the 'wow' I feel. For me, science and photography are two paths to the same place of discovery and understanding.”

The photo above was taken at one of the long-term ecological research sites that scientists at FIU have been visiting for over two decades.

"It's a place where the land meets the sea in a maze of mangroves and tidal rivers," Shannon explains. He says the photo "illustrates the structure and function of the mangrove forest, from the skyward leaves to the knotty tangle of roots that hold the forest steady in high winds and floods." 

From left to right: "Stalker" and "Look at me" by Michelle Yi


Taking a closer look

At a very young age, Michelle Yi began creating art. Currently a junior marine biology major, Yi is happy to use her artistic skills to spotlight animals she's encountered in the field.  

"I chose to illustrate these pieces in particular to bring awareness to the beauty of predatory species [alligator and dragon/damselflies]," she says. "While all wild animals should be treated and respected as such, always with knowledge and caution, acknowledging their critical role in their home environments and seeing the beauty of their capabilities was a very big inspiration [for me]."

The alligator painting is a white pen piece on a wooden board that was painted black using acrylic paint. Yi then highlighted the alligator with white pen through stippling, a technique that creates an art piece by repeatedly marking the piece with small marks or spots. Yi created the damselfly drawing using colored pencils on canvas papers. 

Yi says she relishes the opportunity to create these kinds of pieces. "Being able to use art to promote scientific communicaition and ecological awareness is an incredible honor, and I always have a great time recreating the allure of ecology through artistic expression."


This screen print was designed using Rosario Vidales' image of red mangrove roots from the Florida Everglades. The font used in this design is by Font Monger. 


Tangled roots

Rosario Vidales enjoys designing T-shirts. Vidales is also a Ph.D. student in the Natural Resource Science and Management program. She combined both of her interests to create a shirt design reminiscent of a band T-shirt, with a scientific twist. 

"Since my research involves red mangroves, I thought a design showcasing their tangled prop-roots would be very cool," Vidales says. "I created my design with a picture of red mangrove roots I took while out in the Everglades. I screen-printed the design onto black paper for the ['More Than a Scientist'] exhibit and have also screen printed the design onto a few shirts (which is always a fun conversation starter). I hope to create more nature inspired designs in the future."

Vidales adds that "Carbon Sequestration," refers to one of the ecosystem services provided by mangroves through their uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Red mangroves store the carbon dioxide in their roots, branches and leaves.

Sparkling water

This is what algae looks like under a microscope. This painting features a group of algae called diatoms that are found by the trillions in the Everglades but are invisible to the naked eye.

Kleindl created this piece as a way to illuminate the tiny organisms that have captured her attention and ground her research. "I love algae," Kleindl says. "Diatoms are visually showstopping because of their symmetrical, ornate and complex design. I have seen only a few artists creating algae art, and I wanted to explore my study species from a different perspective. I told myself, 'I’m a creative scientist, let’s see what I can do.'"

This piece showcases the variety of growth forms, shapes and morphological features of diatoms captured in a collage of communities found in a single drop of water. 

“Diatom cell walls are made of glass that reflect light when we view them under the microscope," Kleindl says. "I used glitter paint to create the diatoms as a way to convey a question -  when light glimmers off the waves and water, isn't it reflecting off the cells of diatoms too?”

That's just one more way to explore science through art.