Distillations: Quilting science & changing climates

When you think of a combo of science & art, what comes to mind? Drawings? Dance? Music? How about quilting? Laura Guertin, Professor of Earth Science at Penn State Brandywine, was looking for creative and innovative to do just that when she came across the idea of showing the effects of climate change (among other things) via quilts! We chatted with her about quilting, crocheting, and other innovative ways to engage everyone from students to the science-interested public. 

This episode was produced by Shane M Hanlon and mixed by Collin Warren. Artwork by Olivia Ambrogio. Interview conducted by Laura Krantz.


Shane Hanlon:              00:00                Hi, Vicky.

Vicky Thompson:           00:01                Hi, Shane.

Shane Hanlon:              00:03                So you’re an artist, right?

Vicky Thompson:           00:06                Yeah, I think so. I always feel weird saying artist like capital A artist, but I like to paint. I do a lot of artsy stuff, yeah.

Shane Hanlon:              00:14                Okay. Have you ever done anything combining art and science?

Vicky Thompson:           00:21                Not necessarily. I had to think hard about that. I don’t know. I don’t know. Not that I could think of. What about you?

Shane Hanlon:              00:28                Oh, so it’s funny you said about the capital A artist.

Vicky Thompson:           00:33                Right? That’s weird to say.

Shane Hanlon:              00:35                I don’t do anything with visual arts, like painting, drawing, nothing like that’s my medium. I am a musician and I have made science songs, created, performed science-

Vicky Thompson:           00:50                Oh, I’m so excited.

Shane Hanlon:              00:52                … songs before. Yeah. There’s evidence of this out in the world. You could do some Googling. And actually, I wish people could see faces on the podcast. I have actually thought about doing a little bit of it for the podcast. It hasn’t worked quite yet, but let’s just say that there is potential someday in the future for some science inspired music to appear.

Vicky Thompson:           01:20                Oh my god.

Shane Hanlon:              01:21                In the feeds.

Vicky Thompson:           01:22                This is the perfect opportunity. Just tack it on at the end as a little gateway science music.

Shane Hanlon:              01:28                I don’t have the time to do that a week before our meeting, but maybe. Maybe someday. so depending on whether you want this or not, fingers crossed for yay or nay.

                                    01:43                Science is fascinating, but don’t just take my word for it. Join us as we hear stories from scientists for everyone. I’m Shane Hanlon.

Vicky Thompson:           01:52                And I’m Vicky Thompson.

Shane Hanlon:              01:54                And this is Third Pod from The Sun.

                                    02:01                Okay, so it’s day four of our special series from our annual meeting, and the theme of today is Arts and Innovation.

Vicky Thompson:           02:10                So are you saying that we actually talked about something in our prompt that is related to the episode? This never happens.

Shane Hanlon:              02:18                We did. I know, it’s harder than it looks out here, but enough of us. Today, we’re just going to get right into it and hear from Laura Guertin on how she combines art and science to communicate to broader audiences.

Vicky Thompson:           02:33                Great. Let’s hear it.

Laura Krantz:                02:37                I’m talking with Professor Laura Guertin, and we’re going to talk about some of the ways you engage your students. And I would imagine engaging students and the public on science issues can sometimes be a challenge. At what point did you realize that you needed to come up with new ways of doing that?

Laura Guertin:               02:59                I’ve been crocheting for a number of years, and several years ago I started crocheting temperature data. Been crocheting temperature data for a while. And then back in 2018, I attended a program down at the Louisiana University’s Marine Consortium, or LUMCON, it’s called. They invited a group of scientists and science communicators to come together to the Louisiana coast to help them tell stories of what they were calling coastal optimism.

                                    03:25                So all the stories you typically hear about Louisiana Coast are doom and gloom, right? Sea levels rising, the coast is subsiding.

Laura Krantz:                03:32                The bayou is being destroyed.

Laura Guertin:               03:34                Exactly. So-

Laura Krantz:                03:35                Hurricanes.

Laura Guertin:               03:36                Right, right. Which is true. That’s all happening. But there are actually a lot of initiatives and positive outcomes to some of the programs that are taking place, some that are driven by the local people. And so they brought us down there to meet the locals, to visit some different field sites.

                                    03:52                And they said, as a part of this program we’re doing, we would like you to help us tell those stories and find ways to share the successes or these ideas of optimism and hope on the Louisiana coast.

                                    04:04                And so when I finished that program and I came back home, I was thinking, well, I could crochet because I know how to do that. But I really thought about how can I push myself? Because meeting those individuals that live on the Louisiana coast and hearing their stories just coming from their heart and their kindness and this urgency that they had, I was like, I need to do right by this and I need to find other ways besides writing a blog post or recording an audio file.

                                    04:33                And so when I came home from my flight, which of course was delayed, flying into Philadelphia where I live, there’s always a flight delay, and come into my house and I see my sewing machine and this unfinished quilting project sitting on my dining room table.

                                    04:48                I was like, I wonder if I could actually create a quilt about some of the stories that I heard down there. And so I started thinking of, what is a story I could tell with the quilt? And by the end, I had nine quilts done.

                                    05:02                And so I have this whole collection now that’s called Stitching Hope for the Louisiana Coast, where I’ve taken several of the stories I heard and I’ve made quilts out of them. And they’re currently on display right now. And I’ve continued quilting. I’m quilting smaller quilts now about climate solutions, and I just recently went on and ocean expedition for two months on JOIDES Resolution, and now I’m going to be creating quilts relating to my ocean experiences too.

Laura Krantz:                05:28                How do you put a story in fabric?

Laura Guertin:               05:30                So fabric choice is the key. It really is. And so there are so many beautiful quilts out there, and what I try to do is not make the design complicated of the quilt, but have fabrics that relate to the components of the story as I’m pulling it together.

                                    05:44                Now, a quilt by itself, when someone looks at it, they’re not going to be able to get the whole story. It does need some additional narrative put behind it. So either some signage or I’ve created YouTube videos for my quilts to help put them in context.

                                    05:57                But what I love about the quilts is it is attracting audiences more than I imagined. So it’s not just scientists that are curious about these stories, it’s when I have a quilt on display, it attracts everyone because everyone has a favorite blanket or everyone has a quilt story, something their grandmother made or something that’s been handed down in their families on the end of their bed.

                                    06:20                And so no one feels threatened by a quilt. It actually has opened the door to communications to so many people from so many fields and so many generations where they see the quilts and they want to hear the story behind it. And the best part for me is that they take photos and then they share the photos and those stories with additional people.

                                    06:39                And that’s what I want as a scientist. I want people talking about science. I want them to share those narratives. And the quilts have been my conduit to be able to do that.

Laura Krantz:                06:48                That’s amazing. And then the crocheting, tell me a little bit about this project.

Laura Guertin:               06:54                So temperature blankets have been around for a little while. I just hadn’t brought it into my own outreach work. And actually I’ve shared it with my students too. We’ve been showing them that in my classes as well.

Laura Krantz:                07:07                Are are they learning to crochet too?

Laura Guertin:               07:08                So we do have some crocheters on campus. I am hoping next year actually to get them involved in a collaborative quilt project.

Laura Krantz:                07:16                Cool.

Laura Guertin:               07:16                Relating to the United Nations decade, the ocean decade of sustainable development. So we’re going for a big theme and a big project. But for temperature scarves or temperature blankets, what you do is you look at something like the maximum daily temperature for a particular location. And you have a color that’s assigned to a 10 degree band difference.

                                    07:37                So from 90 to 80 degrees, you might have the color red. If the maximum temperature was between 80 and 70 degrees, you might use the color orange. And then for each day you crochet a row depending upon what that maximum temperature was. And so you’ll have something that’s 365 rows by the end of the year, and it’s a snapshot of what the temperatures were over time.

Laura Krantz:                07:58                What a cool idea.

Laura Guertin:               07:59                And you could use rainfall, you could use snowfall, you could use air quality at any data set over time, you could actually put into a visualization through stitching.

                                    08:11                The one with the quilts. I will say when I started doing that and using it as a communication tool for myself, I was actually a little terrified bringing my first quilt to an AGU meeting. And I have brought my temperature crocheting as well and hung that as a poster. And I’ve hung a quilt as a poster before.

                                    08:30                And I wasn’t sure how my science colleagues would view that. Is it where I’m not being as rigorous as I should be? Am I watering it down? And I have to say the most number of people ever to visit one of my posters at AGU has been when I’ve had yarn or fabric. It just brings in the most people.

                                    08:49                And then other scientists want to share their stories and they’re asking me, oh, well I could do this and I could do that. And they’re brainstorming on the spot. So I have to say, in my science world, I was afraid of sharing the quilts, but actually it’s been warmly accepted and embraced, which I am thrilled about.

                                    09:07                For the classroom techniques, I think it’s a little more challenging because many of us are very comfortable with the ways that we teach and the approaches that we use. And so hearing what someone else does, sometimes it’s hard to bridge to, well, that’s not going to work with my setting, or that’s not going to work with my students, or I have this number of labs I have to do, I couldn’t possibly swap that out.

                                    09:30                So sometimes it takes a little bit more conversations and showing the results, the impact on the students. I think when my colleagues hear from the students, their feedback, and then they’re asking if they can do audio projects in other classes, then it starts to spread. And I think people open up a little bit more to thinking outside the box with the approaches we’re using in our classrooms.

Laura Krantz:                09:57                How do you explain this importance of these collaborations between arts and sciences? How do you lay that out for people?

Laura Guertin:               10:03                So it’s just another tool that we can use and it’s one that hasn’t been tapped into much in the past. So there certainly has been science writing that has been going on, that’s been increasing as well. And using social media, YouTube videos, we have those.

                                    10:19                But then you have this really creative piece that is non-digital in some ways. Certainly some of the arts are going to be more digitally driven, but in using fabric or yarn or ceramics or whatever that material is, it’s interesting to get people to think of ways that we can bring in, again, new audiences and to have new conversations with new people instead of scientists talking to scientists all the time. We do that really well, but we need to get our work out there. And art offers us that opportunity to open the door and then bring more people into those conversations.

                                    10:59                And again, with anything that’s a little bit new and a little bit different, you do get some resistance sometimes. I’m incredibly fortunate where my institution fully supports my science quilting and even came to my first quilt show that I had. And so it’s been wonderful to see that they realize that this can make a difference and advance our mission as an institution to help educate others.

Shane Hanlon:              11:32                Vicky, have you ever quilted, and I know they’re all different things, but crocheted or knitted or sewn or anything in that medium to create art?

Vicky Thompson:           11:41                Oh, so I went through a phase, I’ll call it, where I would do, I would make scarfs, finger knit them.

Shane Hanlon:              11:51                Oh, how do you-

Vicky Thompson:           11:51                So you use your fingers as the knitting needles.

Shane Hanlon:              11:54                That’s fascinating.

Vicky Thompson:           11:55                Yeah. I couldn’t tell you how to do it. I don’t remember. But I went through a whole skinny scarf, skinny wide knit scarf phase.

Shane Hanlon:              12:03                Do you still have these scarves?

Vicky Thompson:           12:05                No, but I probably have some pictures somewhere of these scarves. Yeah.

Shane Hanlon:              12:08                Okay.

Vicky Thompson:           12:10                Yeah. Are you a sewer?

Shane Hanlon:              12:12                So yeah, I don’t do anything creatively. I sew out of necessity. I bought a sewing machine last year, but that’s mainly to mend stuff and I’m honestly not very good at it. As previously described, audio is my medium and I’ll leave the physical stuff to those who are much more capable, to literally much more capable hands.

Vicky Thompson:           12:34                Yeah, I agree that you should do that.

Shane Hanlon:              12:36                Oh, okay. Great. Fantastic. Awesome. So with that, that is all from Third Pod From the Sun.

Vicky Thompson:           12:45                Special thanks to Laura Krantz for conducting the interview and to Shane for producing the episode. Audio engineering was by Colin Warren with artwork by Olivia Ambrosio.

Shane Hanlon:              12:56                If you’d like to see video for at least part of this interview, you can head over to YouTube and search for AGU TV.

Vicky Thompson:           13:03                We’d love to hear your thoughts. Please rate and review the podcast and you can find new episodes in your favorite podcasting app or at thirdpodfromthesun.com.

Shane Hanlon:              13:12                Thanks all, and see you tomorrow.



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