SURFing in the Time of Climate Change

NSF's 2018 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program brought two undergrads to the Nature Lab to work on a project around the topic of "designing a visual platform for exploring climate change impacts in coastal plant communities." Mentored by Jen Bissonnette, Lucia Monge, Brown University Herbarium Director Tim Whitfeld and Project Assistant Stewart Copeland [MFA ’19 D+M], Nadia Lahlaf [Brown|RISD, Illustration and Computer Science '20] and Shannon Kingsley [Brown, Ethnobotany and English '20] spent the summer researching the topic.

With a shared interest in science communication, Nadia and Shannon contributed their respective backgrounds and curiosities to their collaboration. The chance to combine art and science drew Nadia to this summer experience, seeing it as a chance to “explore how the visual arts can be used to communicate science” while simultaneously tapping into her interests in biological/life sciences. For Shannon, she saw the SURF program as the ideal opportunity to put to practice the interdisciplinary applications of ethnobotany and connect botany to the visual arts, “while also engaging with her passion for History and English.”

Macroscopic Image of a Beach Pea Flower


From the start of their SURF experience, the project aim was “two-fold,” Shannon states, “in that we had to document plant growth at our site, Tillinghast Place, and then find a visual way to convey our findings, communicating…the effects of climate change on our site….”

As they absorbed multiple sources of inspiration (including readings in ecology, climate change, trends in plant growth, human psychology and different technologies in the Nature Lab), they found themselves most interested in the decline of herbaria, salt marshes, and the correlation between the two. Moving their research in this direction, they connected with the tactile quality of their work, “the process of picking, identifying, and mounting” plant life and the visuals they created.

Far Left: Shannon Kingsley—Far Right: Nadia Lahlaf


While discussing various modes of communicating their findings, they found a book most applicable. Nadia elaborates that “it serves as a visual platform and combines all of the visualization techniques used, imaging they [made]” and functions as a place to scientifically discuss the species list they generated from their collections.

At the conclusion of their SURF project, they created Bending: Adapting to Climate Change in Rhode Island's Coastal Plant Communities, where they presented their research and highlighted images generated on the Lab's technologies as well as their own artwork. The book delves into the environmental pressures confronting coastal ecologies, as well as the students' experiences learning to prepare specimens and conduct field work out at Tillinghast Place. In consolidating research geared towards the general public, Nadia and Shannon hope that the book will appeal to the “non-scientist and those who don’t know about climate change” and give readers “an appreciation for salt marshes and herbaria.”

Mockup of cover for Bending: Adapting to Climate Change in Rhode Island's Coastal Plant Communities

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