“Wild Researchers” shows natural scientists in action

UNSW researcher Katie Coleborn studies bushfires by examining stalagmites in Wombeyan Caves, NSW. Source: UNSW, Australia http://www.wildresearchers.unsw.edu.au/

Photographer Tamara Dean has teamed up with researchers from the University of New South Wales to show how dynamic and active scientists can be. In the photo series Wild Researchers, Dean took photos of 17 researchers including mathematicians, marine biologists, climatologists, and ecologists in the natural environments that they study, giving a beautiful representation of the work that they do and the landscapes and organisms that they examine. In an interview, Dean said that many images portray scientists in labs and labcoats or “in a particular way that we’ve been taught to perceive them.” She wanted to take these researchers out into the environments that they study and show “how they fit into the big story of them within the world”. The result: Stunning portraits with a painterly quality that show an ecologist tracking dingoes,  a marine biologist pulling up the anchor of her research vessel, mathematicians floating in the ocean currents that they model,  and a series of other scientists working in the field.

UNSW ecologist Daniel Hunter tracks dingoes in the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, NSW. Source: UNSW Australia http://www.wildresearchers.unsw.edu.au/

As a scientist who has conducted field research, I appreciate how Dean has used her artistic abilities to reveal to the public what it is like to study the natural world. When I show my friends pictures of myself doing ecological field work, whether it is SCUBA diving in French Polynesia or hiking through forests in Northern California, there is often a sense that I am not doing any real work. To be fair, they are photos of me having fun in gorgeous places, and having a job that consists of romping through streams or diving on coral reefs in order to collect data is hardly an oppressive lifestyle. But the perception that science is all about mixing chemicals in a lab and running models on computers leaves out the active field component that I love about natural sciences. Lab and computer work are major parts of natural scientific research, but the complementary, outdoors aspect of a research project is something that should be celebrated and shown especially to young people who are interested in pursuing a career in natural sciences.

UNSW physical oceanographers Nina Ribbat, Dr Paulina Cetina-Heredia, and Dr Amandine Schaeffer float in Botany Bay, Sydney. Source: UNSW Australia, http://www.wildresearchers.unsw.edu.au/

When photographing the UNSW scientists, Dean said that she “wanted to show them in a heroic manner.” I appreciate that Dean strove to show this side of research, and that she is not alone in such a quest. National Geographic has done a great deal to not only fund and promote scientific research projects through its Explorers program, but also to use photography and story telling to show that scientists really are EXPLORERS who get out into the field and make new discoveries. I do not mean to say that showing scientists in lab coats at a laboratory bench or computer screen is inaccurate. I myself am currently working in a lab and spend the vast majority of my time indoors doing lab-scale tests and data analysis on a computer. And I like it! But the other side of science, the side that gets us out into the field and lets us brag to our investment banker friends that we get to wear wet suits or hiking boots to work, is a side that should be recognized and communicated to the public more often than it is.

UNSW marine ecologist Adriana Vergés pulls up an anchor in Chowder Bay, Sydney. Source: UNSW, Australia http://www.wildresearchers.unsw.edu.au/

Check out the interview with the photographer Tamara Dean below to hear more of her thoughts on the project and how she was inspired to work with these researchers. Also click here to see UNSW’s full collection from this photo series.




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