TRANS.MISSION II - Becoming the glacier

Glacial retreat expert Professor Jemma Wadham reflects on her involvement in the Trans.MISSION II project, merging glacial retreat research with art alongside writer and actress Erika Stockholm at Hay Festival Arequipa in Peru...

What have you learnt from the collaboration?

I think I’ve learnt that artists and scientists are both really story tellers at the end of the day, we just accomplish this in different ways. What was surprising with my conversations with Erika was that there was a lot of common ground, despite our vastly different vocations.

What’s been the biggest surprise?

My own discovery that there are powerful ways I can communicate other than delivering scientific presentations. The way that the story Erika wrote evolved led to us producing a short play, with two narrators and a glacier (speaking about itself and its sad fate), entitled, “The sad tale of the dying glacier”. It drew upon the science from a NERC/CONCYTEC funded project – CASCADA: Cascading impacts of peruvian Glacier shrinkage on biogeochemical cycling and Acid Drainage in Aquatic ecosystems.

I wanted to see if it was possible for me to act the part of the glacier – which I did (in front of over 100 people!). It was my first time ever on stage, having to memorise words and all whilst moving - I didn’t believe I could do it. It was far from perfect, but it made me realise what is possible if you just decide to just give something a go.

What’s been the best moment?

Becoming the glacier!

What’s been the biggest challenge to overcome?

Learning to act and to communicate with emotions, dance and movement felt highly risky to me as a scientist and I was afraid of people’s reactions, both in the audience and at home. What’s been incredible is that the response I got from people who saw the play was far more dramatic than to any science talk I have given – many were quite emotional afterwards and were asking ‘what can we do?” (about the current climate crisis). It’s made me realise that drawing on the hard scientific facts, but interpreting them in a way that moves people to take action is hugely powerful.

What do you hope people will take away from seeing your piece?

I hope that it will build awareness that glaciers are connected to almost everything we know – our water, oceans and atmosphere, and that we cannot separate ourselves from them. What happens to them happens to us. Which future pathway we choose to follow in greenhouse emissions has dramatic consequences for the world’s glaciers, but it will also have serious consequences for many or us. I also hope that it will encourage more scientists to work creatively with artists to boost the impact of their work, and sometimes to take risks. You learn a lot about yourself, whilst also having an impact on people you might not normally reach.

Would you work with a scientist / an artist again?

Absolutely. I’d love to.

What have you learnt about each other’s work?

I’ve learnt a lot about different ways to communicate, how to tell a story, how to create a more emotive impact in the audience. It’s also been wonderful to see and work on the story Erika produced from our initial brainstorm, which is both beautiful and compelling. How will this experience change your approach to work in future? I’d love to do more science communication along the lines of TRANS.Mission. I’m actually also now writing my own book about glaciers in my spare time aimed at a general/popular audience. It aims to tell my own story, to explain how glaciers work, why they matter and why our own fate is inextricably bound to theirs. Watch this space!

Professor Jemma Wadham is an expert in glacial retreat and took part in the Hay Festival's Trans.MISSION II project, merging science with art to find new ways of communicating cutting-edge research. Her collaboration with writer and theatre director Erika Stockholm launched at Hay Festival Arequipa in Peru, 7-10 November 2019.