As an artist-scientist, ‘I’m obsessive about pigments’

Sierra Weir in front of her natural pigment painting Naturalize.

Sierra Weir blends artwork and science expertise to strengthen others’ relationships with their native ecosystems.Credit score: Dagny Felker

Sierra Weir is an environmental educator and pigment artist at Three Rivers Waterkeeper, a non-profit group in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that advocates for native waterways. She earned her bachelor’s diploma in biochemistry and molecular biology in 2020 on the Faculty of Wooster, Ohio, the place she spent a 12 months learning the pigments of Betta fish. She contributed a sculpture, which was primarily based on spectrophotometry information from jewel beetles, to the 2021–22 Iridescence exhibition on the Louisiana Artwork and Science Museum in Baton Rouge. From June to October, she was a featured artist on the Pittsburgh Botanic Backyard’s Unearthed exhibition, the place she confirmed a portray created with pure, domestically sourced pigments.

As an artist, Weir explores pigments from native and invasive vegetation, ochres, clays and muds, discovered anyplace from her house’s drive to native nature trails. Utilizing her background as a biochemist, Weir makes watercolour and oil work, in addition to handmade paper, inks and dyes that mirror ecosystems within the close by Rust Belt, a de-industrialized area that features elements of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Weir sat down with Nature to debate her profession turning factors, improvement as an artist and ideas for different artistic individuals working in analysis.

Which got here first, your analysis or your pigment artwork?

Once I was researching Betta fish, wanting into the genetic regulation of the pores and skin pigment melanin was a coincidence. On the similar time, I used to be taking art-history and ceramics lessons; I had my palms in mud on a regular basis once I wasn’t busy within the laboratory. After an entomology lab internship in my ultimate 12 months, I made a decision I wished to maintain learning pigments, however I wished to do it in bugs.

Beetles are arguably the a few of the most various and plentiful animals on Earth, however their unbelievable coloration is understudied. So, I began a graduate programme in 2020 at Louisiana State College in Baton Rouge to establish the pigments that had developed in a single household of jewel beetles and the way that associated to their evolution and defence mechanisms. Their colors are regarded as for defence. A kind of poorly understood chemical referred to as buprestin, which is present in solely this group, is poisonous to birds. The manufacturing of this toxin, in addition to the beetles’ purple coloration, causes a phenomenon referred to as aposematism, using a warning sign by an animal species to guard them from predators. The birds see the beetles’ purple color, or a selected sample, and keep away from consuming the bugs, as a result of they affiliate this meals supply with the ache of the toxin.

In the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, I used to be reduce off from my ceramics programs, however I used to be intrigued by all of the purple clay discovered north and east of Baton Rouge in West Feliciana Parish, in addition to on the lands of the Choctaw and Chitimacha peoples in Louisiana.

How did you pivot from being a scholar to being a lab technician?

My work in college was a dream on paper, however that wasn’t the way it was figuring out within the day-to-day actuality of the lab. Leaving that grasp’s programme was the perfect choice for me at the moment. And pivoting to a brand new profession in 2022 as a analysis technician allowed all these different issues to open up for me. I’ve discovered that, even in the event you’re scared, in the event you actually know it is advisable change instructions, it would work out in your favour.

One thing that has frequently been altering my life for the higher is trusting my instinct, unlearning exterior pressures and reconnecting with how I’m truly feeling. My philosophy was once way more aligned with the traditional profession path, specializing in wanting good on paper and including a line to your CV each week. Now, I’m restructuring my objectives and asking myself, “How do I need to really feel sooner or later?” and “How do I set myself as much as reside a sustainable life emotionally?” Everytime you get in contact with your self, that’s the finest data you will get.

Does being an artist affect you within the lab and vice versa?

Completely. I draw on my instinct, which entails quite a lot of creativity and visualization, each time I do experiments. I believe creatively about my experiments and develop on what I believe science may be. Analysis can typically be limiting and reductive, so having artistic and historic pursuits helped me to develop my work within the lab.

Moreover, witnessing life on a molecular stage is massively inspirational to my artwork. As a analysis technician, I did quite a lot of imaging, corresponding to fluorescence confocal microscopy, so I acquired to see varied organelles lit up by a dye or a fluorescent tag, or calcium flooding out and in of assorted elements of a cell. This has influenced the relationships that I’ve with completely different supplies as a result of I may visualize sure buildings which might be common throughout life or see their variations.

What’s subsequent for you?

With my expertise in entomology and from learning mycology alone and with the Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Membership, I’ve come to grasp these under-rated, and generally missed, sectors of ecology. And that makes me much more excited to get different individuals excited about these relationships, too. There’s a lot untapped outreach, training and analysis potential in small issues that basically do take observational consciousness even to start asking questions on them.

So, I’m now doing one other pivot, circling again to environmental training — I did a great deal of outreach as an entomology scholar with primary-school youngsters in Baton Rouge.

I simply left my job as a analysis technician on the College of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania to turn out to be an environmental educator at Three Rivers Waterkeeper. I present free instructional programmes in regards to the well being of the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela rivers as a part of an AmeriCorps programme, which offers a stipend for jobs that provide a public service. I get to be artistic with instructional supplies, work carefully with the Pittsburgh neighborhood, clear up our valuable waterways and even use my lab expertise to assist take a look at water samples for contaminants.

My outreach work previously was extremely rewarding. So, I’m letting go of the on-paper scientist expertise and leaving my research-technician position; I need to get extra concerned with the neighborhood and to encourage relationships with native locations.

What are your ideas for different artist-scientists?

Lean into all the pieces as a instructor and take into account different methods of figuring out. What can I study from how this makes me really feel? What can I study from how these landscapes are interacting with one another? How can I study from Indigenous communities which were right here for a lot longer than I’ve? Going sluggish and altering issues up must be anticipated.

My massive challenges have been colonialism and societal expectations that we strategy all the pieces with urgency, that are tremendous intertwined. The way in which to fight them is by exploring these different methods of figuring out, slowing down and releasing your self from the expectations of others.

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