That year, Lauren Cook won the Journal of Fungal Biology and Biotechnology Science Award at the NHM Student Conference. We spoke to her recently about science and the arts.
Courtesy Lauren Cook
Hi Lauren, thank you very much for taking the time to speak to us. Can you tell us something about your studies?
Hello and thanks for the opportunity to talk about what I am doing! I am currently 9 months on my PhD at the Natural History Museum, which is partially funded by Royal Holloway and Cefas. I am exploring how we can use cutting edge DNA technologies to monitor biodiversity from traces of organisms in the environment, also known as environmental DNA (eDNA).
We are witnessing a huge decline in biodiversity worldwide due to climate change, pollution, invasive species and land use changes. In order to protect nature, we first have to know what is there and how the populations are doing – easier said than done! Identifying the many different species using traditional biomonitoring methods can be problematic, especially for those that are difficult to find or look similar, and you may need a different expert for each group of species you study. Additionally, when it comes to monitoring biodiversity, there is a tendency to omit things that we cannot see as easily, such as microorganisms and camouflaged or rare species. The identification process can be accelerated by using an organism’s genetic fingerprint, its DNA. The DNA fingerprints in environmental samples can then be compared with sequences in genetic libraries. This can be applied to all kinds 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 doctoral thesis focuses on the development of eDNA methods as a tool for monitoring entire ecosystems and for integrating microorganisms into a field that is currently dominated by macroorganism research. My research projects over the next 3 years will serve as examples of how this approach can work, initially by using eDNA to track the invasive Chinese woolly crab and monitoring ecosystem recovery at an oyster restoration site in Dorset.
What are your plans after graduation?
I’m not sure yet! I’m currently exploring a few avenues … whether it be to stay in academic research, become a lecturer, work in a biotech company that uses eDNA methods, take on a political role, or go full-time in the arts, animation, and science communication . I’ll follow my nose and I’ll see where it takes me!
Your channel combines science, art and education – can you tell us a little more about it and your inspiration?
Through my studies, I hope to contribute to a meaningful science at the forefront of research. However, advances in science will only have an impact if people know about it. Presenting concepts in a visual format can make messages accessible to everyone, regardless of background or expertise. Art and science can be extremely connected in terms of exploration and contribution to the world around us. As Leonardo Da Vinci said: “Art is the queen of all sciences that impart knowledge to all generations of the world!”
While studying biology, I exercised my artistic inclination by running a project for schools called “Creativity in Learning” that taught elementary school children through the arts and crafts. I found that the vast majority of the class saved information best when they saw a picture, video, or spent time creating artwork. That value of ‘visual learning’ stuck with me and, inspired by my talented co-artist Liam, I started experimenting with stop motion animation to try to get people excited about my Masters degree during scientific presentations! These helped open the door to an internship at the British Ecological Society, which created stop-motion animation and artwork to help raise awareness on conservation issues. It feels like I’ve found a calling! I am interested that my work and other collaborations between scientists and artists can spread the love of nature and inspire others to take steps to protect it.
What has been your favorite art or video project so far?
I really enjoyed making an animated film called ‘The New Urban Jungle’ for the Wild Glades Festival recently. My job was to highlight the joy as well as the problems of biodiversity and share some simple tips on how to support urban wildlife for your home, garden, flower box or old boot! I had a free hand to present animals and plants that I like very much, for example elephant swarms, hedgehogs and wildflowers, as well as the sounds of blackbirds, robins and tawny owls! I was very encouraged by the responses from those who saw it and said that it inspired them to fix an insect hotel, plant a piece of wildflower, dig a pond, or take a hedgehog highway with their neighbors to build!
What advice would you give anyone interested in exploring science through art?
I would give two pieces of advice:
- Practice makes progress – just go ahead, create for yourself and for friends and family. The more you create, the better your skills will be and the more you will have of them. You don’t have to call yourself a great artist!
- Take Your Work Outside – Social media is a great way to connect with others who do similar things. It is a useful exercise to visually summarize your research, use it for presentations, or just so your friends and family can understand a little better what you are doing. It’s a great way to open up new opportunities and you never know where it could lead.