Plant physiologist Dr Sarah Ayling reflects on her involvement in our Trans.MISSION II project in which the work of her DRY project was interpreted into a new story by bestselling novelist Patrice Lawrence... 

What made you interested in doing this project? 

An opportunity to do something new and learn from someone outside my discipline.

What did you hope to achieve together? 

I hoped we would be able to create something that helps other people understand how scientists look at problems and how drier summers might affect us and how we can adapt to changing situations.

Have you done anything similar before? 

I am an active member of the Somerset Wildlife Trust and help to run a wildlife watch group; so have an interest in environmental education.

Did you enjoy art / science in school? 

I enjoyed both, it is a shame that at school there is not enough time, once children start their GCSEs, within the curriculum for children to do art and science.

What do you think are the biggest barriers at the moment for communicating science? 

When you work as a scientist (or in any other specialised field) you use specialised language associated with your subject and it is easy to forget that other people may not use that language. Some people seem to think that scientists are somehow different to other people, cleverer even, and that because they have not studied science they cannot understand it and so do not try.

Which scientists / artists do you look up to? 

A difficult question to answer. I have been fortunate in my career to work with several people who are world leaders in their field; all worked hard, paid attention to detail, were continually striving to learn more and were open to new ideas.

What other examples of art meeting science have inspired you? 

I remember the first time I used an electron microscope to look at plant cells at very high magnification; it was as if a new, beautiful and amazing world had opened before me. 

What have you learnt from the collaboration?  

The collaboration has reinforced my opinion that there are many different ways of looking at something, and the more different ways you use the more you will learn about it.

What’s been the biggest surprise?

My focus during the DRY project has been on grasslands, the information about potatoes was interesting to me but only tangentially so I was surprised when they appeared in the story.

What’s been the best moment?

One of the aims of the research and the field experiments was to act as a focus to stimulate people to think about water and water use in a much wider way and the story certainly achieves that without being heavy handed.

What’s been the biggest challenge to overcome? 

I had quite strong ideas about what aspects of our research were most important, and I had to accept that for someone else other aspects may be more important.

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

That everything in the World is connected and if we want humans to thrive we need to understand and respect our environment

Would you work with a scientist / an artist again?

Definitely. As I said, some people have a false perception that scientists are ‘different’ and that science is ‘hard’ anything that helps people to realise that science is one way of describing and understanding our World, has to be a good thing.

What have you learnt about each other’s work?

Both Patrice and Chris seem to use similar methods to start a new project as I do. Start by finding out what information is available, look at the facts and see where that information leads, and then start to develop ideas to explain the existing facts and work out what new information is needed.

How will this experience change your approach to work in future?

It is difficult so answer this because as you do more different things and work with different people you tend to alter your approach, often without realising. My research has been publicly funded, and I have always felt that it is important that the results should be available to the public. I think this experience will help me to keep in mind the ‘wider picture’, and make me think about different ways of telling people what I do.

Dr Sarah Ayling is a plant physiologist based at the Department of Geography and Environmental Management at UWE Bristol. She has studied the effects of drought and the root environment on plant growth in the UK, USA and Australia. Sarah is experienced in nutrient transport, ion-imaging and water relations. In her spare time, she is actively involved with local conservation groups and environmental education activities.