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Forest ecology, illustrations and jam sessions: How arts and science mix in Chris Gough’s lab

Gough, a biology professor — and a trained singer and musician — hosts art students in his lab to better ensure important data is conveyed through imagery.
Chris Gough holding a piece of art made by one of his students

Biology professor Chris Gough’s research papers are incomplete without the standard written explanations and graphs detailing his lab’s findings. To enhance the accessibility and broad comprehension of scientific papers conveying technical research on forest and wetland ecosystems, Gough involves science-oriented art students, who also engage in the lab’s field-based research.

“Not all people think like scientists and not all people absorb complex information in the same way, so working with artists really facilitates and broadens our capacity to communicate what can be intimidating,” said Gough, Ph.D., an associate professor in VCU's College of Humanities and Sciences. “Images can help explain complex scientific ideas to the masses. There's a lot of value in that.”

Gough thinks clarifying science using multiple approaches is essential to tackling issues he investigates — greenhouse gasses, global warming and climate change — and educating the public about these topics as well.

Expressing his scientific findings about forest ecology, ecosystem ecology and plant physiological ecology visually is such an important part of Gough’s process that this fall — for the third time — he will host an art student in his lab. To Gough, the connection between art and science is obvious.

“When you're thinking about experimental approaches, this is where creativity is really helpful because most of the easy, relatively straightforward science has been done,” Gough said. “The creative science allows us to answer the more challenging, complex questions and reach across boundaries and disciplines. I think one of those ways is through the artful, accurate illustration of complex scientific ideas.”

Chris Gough kneeling in front of various pieces of artwork and graphics
Gough in Monroe Park. “Not all people think like scientists and not all people absorb complex information in the same way, so working with artists really facilitates and broadens our capacity to communicate what can be intimidating," he said. "Images can help explain complex scientific ideas to the masses. There's a lot of value in that.” (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Complex ideas made visual

Creativity, as well as making science accessible and fun, is a hallmark of the Gough lab. Many of the dozen or so members of his research group — from undergrads to postdoctoral research fellows — are also musicians like Gough, who is a trained singer and was a member of touring rock bands that played at venues like CBGBs music club in New York, the now defunct Bayou in DC and the Flood Zone in Richmond. Lab members often jam together out in the field.

“We don't always have to communicate everything in a technical way. And it's a really useful exercise for us as scientists to have to communicate what we're doing to those who aren't scientists,” Gough said. “We can use artful illustrations to convey ideas. For quantitative data and information, we can produce two-dimensional figures that plot the actual data. Both are valuable, important and complementary to one another.” 

Gough said artful illustrations are particularly useful to create information that's challenging to otherwise communicate to someone who has less of a background in an area, or in a situation where he is trying to communicate a concept that may be new to the scientific community.

“We don’t always have to communicate everything in a technical way. And it’s a really useful exercise for us as scientists to have to communicate what we’re doing to those who aren't scientists.”

Chris Gough, Ph.D.

Isabel Griffin, a North Carolina-based graphic artist and VCU School of the Arts grad who is inspired by the natural world, said she spent most of her time at the Gough lab her senior year happily processing samples. She first met Gough at an arts and climate seminar where he gave a presentation that she said opened her mind to the potential of data visualization.

“He shared graphics that depicted the Amazon rainforest as a global carbon sink through animated wind and temperature data,” Griffin said. “Another slide demonstrated Richmond's ecological racism and its effects on historically Black neighborhoods through overlapping nearly identical maps depicting the localized frequency of heat strokes reported, heat islands, foliage density and grocery store locations.

“It stuck with me. The minds behind those graphics had made the invisible truth visible using only measurements and colors. I was stunned.”

She joined the lab to process data of wooded areas Gough’s researchers were using to measure rugosity (small-scale variations in the height of a surface) as well as helping create data measurement materials and processing leaf litter. She designed patches and a lab T-shirt for the group, representing their research experience in the field. Griffin’s Communication Arts classwork that semester was inspired by forest ecology with special focus on fungi and tree relationships. The experience continues to inspire Griffin’s artwork, some of which adorns the walls inside Gough’s lab.

Catherine McGuigan with her poster of a natural bridge
Catherine McGuigan holding up a piece of her artwork. (Courtesy of Catherine McGuigan)

Artists alongside scientists

Gough likes working with artists who have a science foundation because of their creativity and flexibility. But not all who join the lab create technical illustrations. Some, like Griffin, are interested in learning about science for the sake of inspiring and motivating their art in new ways.

In 2017, Catherine McGuigan was enrolled in Gough’s interdisciplinary Green Walls class, that merged science and art students that constructed the vertical garden on the wall of Ram Bikes at Belvedere and Broad streets in Richmond.

“I remember Catherine sketching a tree or something that was nature based and I was impressed,” Gough said. “It turned out that she was also an environmental studies double major, so we had a conversation about the complementarity of the arts and the sciences. And then next thing you knew, she was working in the lab, including as a researcher in the field at the University of Michigan Biological Station.”

McGuigan, who graduated from the School of the Arts in 2018, also took Gough’s forest ecology class.

“He would give me an overview of what they were trying to convey and using just the basic skills that I have as a communications artist, I would give him feedback on what images might make a little more sense from the viewer or the reader's perspective,” McGuigan said of the process of illustrating figures for the Gough lab. “All of the concepts were conceptual. It was a lot of illustrating a couple of processes over a certain time frame and asking, ‘Do these images make sense in context to what is happening in the paper?’”

a diagram of the eddy covariance phenomena
"This figure demonstrates the phenomenon known as eddy covariance. This is a technique of projecting, in this case, carbon emissions as they interact with wind patterns and a forested habitat," McGuigan said. "The measurements taken are made possible by the flux tower, located near the middle of the figure. It is another way for us to measure atmospheric carbon." (Courtesy of Catherine McGuigan)

McGuigan enjoyed the experience.

“It was a lot of fun, a really great learning experience on a lot of levels and interesting to see the process of interpreting information and then chewing it up, spitting it back out and seeing what the finished visual product was,” McGuigan said.

The fall 2021 art student to work in Gough’s lab is Erika Masis Laverde, a rising senior majoring in communication arts with a concentration in scientific and medical preparatory illustration and a minor in biology. She enjoys drawing fish, aquatic animals and bugs. Masis Laverde connected to Gough’s lab through the VCU Office of Undergraduate Research.

an art piece of various insect wing patterns made by a student
Pattern studies by Erika Masis Laverde done in digital media as a part of a larger project for digital drawing. (Courtesy of Erika Masis Laverde)

“I'm really excited to be able to do this and get the opportunity to see how a lab works together,” said Masis Laverde. “It'll be interesting and I think that'll help me to grow as an artist who wants to make work that will one day be used for scientific publications. It will be a nice challenge.”

McGuigan said her time in Gough’s lab helped her realize there was a niche for the type of art she was interested in creating, such as a series of prints highlighting the features of Virginia’s state parks.

“The things I created for the lab were definitely specific, but I was also able to find ways of incorporating natural elements into my art and making that my thing that I did,” McGuigan said.

A paper titled “Forest Aging, Disturbance and the Carbon Cycle” that Gough published with illustrations by McGuigan was one of the top 10 downloaded papers in the journal New Phytologist in 2019. To Gough, that is positive feedback that the extra effort he puts into visual interpretation is appreciated.

“If you want to resonate with your audience and you want people to be interested and engaged with your work, it needs to be accessible and interesting,” Gough said. “And that's true in the scientific world too. Nobody's going to read your paper if it's not useful to them.”

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