Helen Hugh-Jones (left) (@nells_originals), Nell’s Originals, & Rehemat Bhatia (right) (@rehemat_), University College London are taking part in Soapbox Art & Science in Thamesmead, London on 16th September 2017. You can catch them giving a presentation called: “Fossil plankton and the big climate stories they have to tell!” Here we catch up with them about what they have been working on together.
SS: How did you get to your current positions?
Rehemat Bhatia: I completed my undergraduate MSci Geoscience degree at Royal Holloway (University of London). Alongside my undergraduate degree I also volunteered at the Natural History Museum in London, with a volunteer scheme called V Factor, which at that point was collaborating with an EU funded paleoclimate research project called Throughflow. This research project introduced me to the world of palaeoclimate and made me realise I could apply my favourite geological facet (geochemistry) to fossil archives. I subsequently interned with another Throughflow researcher in Kiel who was working on plankton geochemistry during the summer of 2012, and I enjoyed it so much that I decided to apply for a PhD with a similar focus
Helen Hugh-Jones: By a rather roundabout loop really! I read Classics at Cambridge, then an MA in the history of 15th century Florentine art at the Courtauld – so I don’t actually have any fine art or illustration training. I was continually drawing though: if you look at my old homework or lecture notes, they’re covered in sketches. My Latin teacher at school used to give me bonus marks for illustrating my translations! It was only when I had a few weeks off between jobs that I started drawing properly again, and I now split my time between an interior design firm and doing freelance illustration. I’m currently working on a few children’s books by different authors, and have just completed a big re-branding for an international music school.
SS: What, or who, inspired your career choices?
RB: I was always fascinated by the natural world growing up, whether it was seeing mountains on trips to visit family in Canada or hanging at the beach and looking in rock pools. I guess it wasn’t until I was a teenager that my interest really started to develop. My geography and geology teachers at school were always really enthusiastic and I was captivated by all the concepts they taught me. They also made me realise that geology was something I could turn into a career. The Throughflow researchers who I volunteered and interned with as an undergraduate were also incredibly encouraging and supportive, and great mentors too.
HHJ: I first really started using watercolours in earnest when I was about 15. My teachers were very supportive and encouraged us to use the art rooms whenever we wanted. I was very inspired by artists like Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?
RB: I work on fossil plankton made from calcium carbonate, called foraminifera, which live in the oceans all around the world. The chemistry of foraminifera skeletons record the environmental and seawater conditions that were around them at the time they lived. We can use these chemical signatures to reconstruct past climate conditions like sea surface temperature and continental ice volume. The fact that a single celled organism that’s really no bigger than a sand grain can record all of this is something that never fails to amaze me. (Pic: a species of planktonic foraminifera under a light microscope. credit Rebecca Brownlow (RHUL))
HHJ: I love seeing how commissions come to life. People sometimes have quite a set idea of what they want from me, whether it is a book or a painting or a logo: this can be hard to meet their wavelength, but it’s incredibly satisfying when they’re really pleased. On the other hand, some people have no idea what they want, and offer a completely blank slate. It really helps to have a good relationship with the client. I love how calm drawing and painting makes me feel, especially if I feel secure in the scope of the project, and how I can while away hours without really noticing. And then when something is printed or created with my designs or drawings on it – the feeling is amazing!
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Art & Science in the first place?
RB: I really enjoy taking part in science outreach events, and Soapbox Science is one event which really helps to tackle some of the biggest problems in the geosciences – the lack of women and diversity. There are many conferences I’ve been to during my PhD where you see so few women and the environments aren’t super multicultural either. Being a woman of colour I feel like it’s crucial to be an advocate for both of these causes, and I hope the amount of exposure that Soapbox gets will help to contribute towards them and inspire more young people. Being able to showcase the world of microfossils to the general public through artistic means is also awesome – they’re so beautiful and definitely deserve more exposure!
HHJ: I think it’s incredibly important that we start to see the Arts & Sciences as integral, complementary skills, not antagonistic fields that have nothing to do with each other. Historically, you could happily be a person of Science and of Art – yet nowadays there seems to be little crossover. Soapbox tackles many different issues, from outreach to gender equality, never mind the fascinating work that will be presented, and I’m glad I can contribute to its ongoing work in the community.
SS: What ideas are you working on together?
HHJ: Rehemat’s PhD focuses on tiny tiny fossilized organisms called foraminifera. We thought it might be fun to bring these to the big page. Using her scanning electron microscope images, I then sketched them out and worked up a sort of storyboard that would illustrate some of the things she wanted to say in the talk. We’ve touched on a few different aspects of the history of these fossils: the story of the great explorer ship HMS Challenger; the wonderful Scientist-Artist Ernst Haeckel; and how scientists today use them to show the story of climate change.
RB: As Ernst Haeckel is a SciArt micropalaeontology icon, I was super keen for our presentation to include his artistic style. Microfossils from all groups are stunning, but I decided to focus my presentation around foraminifera as these are the group I research. Helen has produced some fantastic sketches based on the ideas we discussed together – I can’t wait for everyone to see them!
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia?
RB: Work hard, persevere and be persistent at what you’re researching and look after yourself. Practice your writing skills regularly throughout your PhD too – it’s really hard to get back into this if you have had a long break from it. But most importantly, in your final year, don’t lose that enthusiasm that you first had when you started your PhD – you set out to do cool and exciting science and if you’ve made it this far, you can totally do it!
HHJ: (I’ll change this slightly – I don’t have a PhD!) Work hard, persevere and be persistent at what you’re [drawing] and look after yourself – this all echoes perfectly with what I would recommend to young illustrators. You have to really love it and to throw yourself in, to open yourself to new ideas and techniques, try new things, read around the subject, talk to people, write stories, read stories, go to exhibitions… For me it’s perfect as I can work on my creative side parallel to my work in the office – it can get lonely by yourself too!
SS: What would be your recommendation for working with people from other subjects and disciplines?
RB: Definitely give it a try! By collaborating with researchers in different disciplines, you can broaden your knowledge and learn how to explain scientific concepts in ways you’ve probably never considered before. Helen has definitely asked me some questions that I had previously never thought of, which is great prep for my PhD viva!
HHJ: It’s fascinating! This is one the first projects I’ve done on a subject I know so little about beforehand, and I feel I’ve learnt so much from it. The nature of Rehemat’s work has also made me study other artists who’ve worked on similar scientific projects, which has opened my eyes to new and exciting ways of depiction – not to mention the science itself. It’s definitely worth asking as many questions as you can, and getting to know the subject on more than just a superficial, visual level: not only does it help form your images better, but the act of drawing also becomes more engaged and interesting too.