Student forges connections between art and science

by University Communications,

When Erynn Rebol ’13 heads out into the field for scientific study, she’s just as likely to take along her sketchbook as her research journal.

While many see art and science as opposing ends of a spectrum, Rebol believes they are intricately connected. And with the help of several Willamette professors — combined with summer research experiences — she has found ways to successfully combine the two disciplines.

“I would like to be a field biologist who researches animal behavior,” says the Redding, Calif., native, who chose to major in biology with a minor in art. “The best way to approach conservation issues is to understand your subjects thoroughly. One way to understand animals is to look at how they are communicating with each other and what their behavior is telling us.

“I also think it’s important for the general public to be aware of environmental issues. You can talk with someone or show them a published paper saying that bad things are happening, but sometimes that doesn’t get through. I have realized that my art could be a medium through which I could speak to people about the environment.”

Lessons in Conservation

Among Rebol’s works-in-progress is a set of two oil paintings based on her experience several summers ago participating in Willamette’s Liberal Arts Research Collaborative.

Her research team — consisting of biology professor David Craig, English professor Michael Strelow and several other students from science and the arts — traveled to the Columbia River Estuary to study the relationship between threatened and endangered salmon and the world’s largest Caspian tern colony, which congregates there.

“There has been a lot of negative coverage of the terns in the media because they eat so many salmon,” Rebol says. “However, the more research we did, the more we realized how other factors, such as dams, over-harvesting, illegal salmon fishing and dredging, have a much larger impact on salmon populations. Despite this, Caspian terns are viewed by the locals as the root cause of the problem.”

Her paintings portray two human arms — one showcasing a series of blue veins and holding a healthy salmon; the other where the veins are the Columbia River and its tributaries, with a series of dams. This arm holds a small, sickly fish.

“Erynn is a terrific student with a fundamental understanding and awareness of the intersections between art, science and technology,” says art professor James Thompson, who taught Rebol in his monoprinting course. “In adopting a multidisciplinary approach to her education, she utilizes our undergraduate curriculum as a touchstone to explore and celebrate the liberal arts at this institution.”

From the Mojave to South Africa

The summer following her LARC experience, Rebol earned an internship through San Diego State University and the University of California, Davis, that sent her into the Mojave Desert — to catch rattlesnakes.

She was participating in a research project studying the relationship between the snakes and several mammals that they eat.

“It was my first big job in the field, and I loved it so much,” she says. “It solidified the fact that I’m heading in the right direction.”

This summer she’ll go back into the field through LARC with two of her mentors: Craig from biology, and Andries Fourie from the art department. They’ll be working in South Africa, studying the biomes of the Eastern Cape.

Craig and Rebol will collect data on Caspian terns there while acting as landscape interpreters for Fourie and several art students, who will be creating works about the varied organisms on the Cape.

“I like that LARC gives you to the opportunity to take on and manage a big research project on your own, while also working on a peer-to-peer level with your professors,” Rebol says.

“My favorite part about Willamette has been the professors. They give you so many opportunities to work with them and gain experience in the lab. But it’s also easy to talk with them about homework, future career choices and even personal problems. They’re there for you anytime you need them.”

Image Gallery: Erynn Rebol '13