3Q: Rich Johnston
For scientists used to describing experiments in scientific papers, distilling their research down to one picture and a 150-word description presents a challenge. But this is what the ‘Research as Art’ competition demands. With the 2015 entries on display at the Royal Institution in London until 2 March, materials scientist Rich Johnston, co-director of Swansea University’s Advanced Imaging of Materials facility, told Nature about the competition, which he founded in 2009.
What is the purpose of Research as Art, and how does it differ from other science-photography competitions?
Research as Art is less about the stunning picture, and more about the story. It’s about what goes on behind the research; what it means to be a researcher. The most compelling submissions aren’t an image that was lying unappreciated on a lab hard drive for years, or a beautiful false-coloured electron microscopy image. They are the submissions that describe the years of failure in the laboratory, the imposter-syndrome and the way you question yourself daily. Submissions can be very personal. For 2015, I received an acrylic painting, Nearly Not Dusk, from geographer Jennifer Stanford. It was her view from the deck of a research vessel in the Norwegian Sea. She described the cold isolation of seeing neither darkness nor land for weeks on end. I’ve never been on a research ship in the Arctic Circle, but reading the text and looking at the painting, I was transported to that spot, to her viewpoint, to her life.
Conventional research output doesn’t provide an avenue for the creativity and emotion that underpins research. The conventions of publication mean that the human is stripped from the final product — the research paper. Researchers are creative. They develop exciting hypotheses and they are creative in their proposals for funding.
Do you have a favourite image from the competition?
This year was the first time the wonderful judging panel selected my favourite as the overall winner: Rising from the Page: Bringing Medieval Women to Life (pictured, top) by Sparky Booker and Deborah Youngs. They are historians, working primarily with medieval legal texts. Perhaps not the easiest subject matter in this context, but they created a submission that represented their research, their process, the challenges they face in lifting these experiences from incomplete text and presenting a rounded view of medieval women. And they did it in a unique and clever way, with a paperchain of women, cut from a manuscript, literally rising from the page.
My favourite from the early years of Research as Art helped develop the project in a new direction, revealing the humanity behind research. This was by Suzy Moody, entitled Scrutiny. When I first saw this entry in 2011, I remember being amazed that someone had so perfectly captured their research process, and what it means to them, and how our identity as humans can be shaped by the research we do.
I have another favourite too. Matt Carnie works on photovoltaics, or solar cells. He teamed up with his wife Jay Doyle to represent failure in research with Graveyard of Ambition. They arranged lots of small solar cells in rows, like gravestones. These cells were all failures. Failed attempts at improving on previous research, which are a part of Matt’s past, but also shape his future, as he learns from each one. They are as much a part of his research as the one cell that does yield a higher efficiency, which makes it into his academic paper.
Do you produce art in your own research?
I lead an imaging research group where we X-ray all manner of interesting things, and find even more interesting and otherworldly shapes when we peer inside them at the micro-scale. So we produce striking images and 3D animations in the lab daily. But, I don’t really consider these to be our art. We can spend a lot of time working on huge X-ray data sets to make them beautiful, and they may be considered SciArt, but I see them as a gateway to the research story.
I have put submissions into the exhibition when it tours different places, but I wouldn’t want to influence potential contributors too much. I began Research as Art, but the researchers who’ve engaged with the project and given a glimpse into their process are far better at Research as Art than I am, and have had a huge impact on how it’s developed. They have found a platform to explore their creativity and convey their emotion and humanity. Their submissions astound me every year. I’m blown away by their ability to reveal part of their soul … in just an image and 150 words or less.
Rich Johnston was a 2013 British Science Association media fellow at Nature. Interview by Daniel Cressey, a reporter for Nature in London. He tweets at @DPCressey.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.