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Combining science and art to shift our thinking and spur action in a changing world

The Bloodline of Floriculture by Tyler Ung.
Tyler Ung
The Bloodline of Floriculture by Tyler Ung.

We’re living in the Anthropocene, or the epoch in which humans are—for the first time—the dominant driver of global change related to climate and the environment. As polar ice melts, sea levels rise, and storm and wildfire seasons get longer and more intense, climate projections suggest the Earth will be several degrees warmer by 2100. Although most Americans say climate change is an important topic, research shows fewer than half see it talked about in the media and just one in five discuss it with their peers. Science communication, or moving science outside the walls of academia, isn’t easy—but it’s imperative. Tyler Ung wants to play a role in that imperative.

Tyler is a 2018 graduate of the University of Washington’s Program on the Environment, a bachelor of arts degree offered through the College of the Environment.

He’s an artist and an academic—an atypical combination that may become more less-so as institutions, organizations, and individuals see the value of communicating science through both academic and cultural lenses. Tyler believes people practicing both disciplines within their traditional silos falls short in reaching the public, especially when it comes to contextualizing the precarious situations we face.

“In science, we’re taught to act inhuman to remain objective. On the other hand, art has been a method of communication since our ancestors could draw on rocks, but a common response to art is, ‘I don’t get it,” he said. “If we’ve got senators throwing snowballs, we know we have a gap in communicating science into public discourse.”

Recent UW Program on the Environment alum Tyler Ung.
Tyler Ung
Recent UW Program on the Environment alum Tyler Ung.

As an intern at UW’s Center for Creative Conservation, now fully integrated in EarthLab, Tyler developed a senior project focusing on the budding “sci-art” movement, a concept that bridges the science communication gap through creative expression. Working with Sara Jo Breslow, an environmental anthropologist and the Center’s program manager, he wanted to know if sci-art could truly increase environmental awareness, where and how it’s currently being employed, and to try his hand at creating sci-art.

Tyler developed three categories that sci-art efforts commonly incorporate to appeal to individuals’ hearts and minds. Based on Kathleen Dean Moore’s book Moral Ground, he looked at sci-art projects through anthro-centric, bio-centric, and human virtue-oriented lenses. That is, sci-art often speaks to people by appealing to their sense of moral obligation to future generations of humans, the Earth itself and all its creatures and/or compassion and preservation for oneself.

Digging deeper, he wanted to see sci-art efforts and opportunities around the globe. In addition to examining the Pacific Northwest, Tyler analyzed sci-art’s prevalence through two study abroad experiences offered through the University of Washington. He traveled to China with Program on the Environment Lecturer Kristi Straus, as part of her “international flipped classroom” partnership with Tsinghua University in Beijing, as well as spent time in Bangalore, India with UW’s Grand Challenges Impact Lab.

“China, India, and the US. heavily impact the trajectory towards a more livable future. They hold records as one of the biggest emitters, highest in urban population growth and most wasteful per capita,” he said. “This inspired me to examine and connect these three cities and countries.”

Through site visits, walking tours and informal interviews, Tyler concluded that integration between arts and sciences were lacking—especially at the large research-focused academic institution he surveyed in China.

“They’re doing great environmental research [at Tsinghua University], but it’s very hard science-based. Based on the conversations I had with students and researchers, there isn’t a lot of opportunity for multi-disciplinary work between the arts and sciences .”

Originami by Tyler Ung.
Tyler Ung
Originami by Tyler Ung.

Back in Seattle, his hometown, and informed by both his qualitative and quantitative research, Tyler began building out his own sci-art works—a set of mixed-media images combining photos and line-drawings. In each piece, he alludes to the disassociation of everyday life from the grand scale of environmental issues we face. Recently, he has displayed his works—a collection called A Mind’s Meadow: Beauty Beyond Suppression—at Pioneer AXIS Gallery in Seattle, as well as the university’s EarthDay and TEDx events.

Bare Necessities by Tyler Ung.
Tyler Ung
Bare Necessities by Tyler Ung.

“It’s inspiring to hear other peoples’ perspectives of my art—it solidifies the value and beauty of the work as their ideas expand beyond my initial considerations,” he said.

Lost Loris by Tyler Ung.
Tyler Ung
Lost Loris by Tyler Ung.

Tyler says that we see art and design in everything we do, from business to academics to walking down the street. When sci-art becomes a more prominent way to communicate about environmental issues, he thinks there’s a huge opportunity to display that work in a variety of contexts and mediums.

Achieving these goals on a broader, more global scale still presents a host of challenges. One of the biggest challenges sci-art—and environmental education, in general—faces is that it’s difficult to trace and measure its impact. Still, Tyler is optimistic about the movement’s ability to create meaningful change in the face of rapid global shifts.

“Art has prominently influenced our histories, values and cultural identities, but we’ve removed that human-ness from the way we talk about science and research. People are seeing sci-art as a way to engage in big conversations now, and they’re seeing that we need to talk about the human-environment dynamic as much as we need the facts and technologies coming out of science,” he said. “The concept of sci-art is growing, and my hope is that it breaks apart the echo chambers of information that exist within every group and community.”

After a summer of travel and freelance work, Tyler wants to study the connections between arts and sciences, as well as environmental sociology at the graduate-level.