With an affinity for doing things differently, Britt Wray straddles the worlds of science, art and radio to discover the ways in which science can engage the mind and resonate with the individual. After getting her Bachelor’s in Biology and her Master’s in Interdisciplinary Art, Britt is currently doing her phD in Media, Cognition and Communication, in addition to writing her first book. Influenced by the discussion of open artistic questions as much as the science itself, Britt Wray talks us through her addiction to inspiration, her weirdest ever moments, and how she came to be a storyteller of science.
FCLTY: Can you tell us a little about yourself and what it means to be a science storyteller?
Well I started off as a biology student and I discovered pretty quickly that I was not good at…science *laughs*. I wasn’t an exceptionally talented lab technician and I didn’t care about meticulous measurements to discover a phenomenon in empirical ways, I was way more interested in science through the stories and personal experiences my professors were bestowing upon me. So the feeling of my labs being a ‘chore’ was rising and my fascination with the larger stories about how the natural world operates was kicking in stronger.
FCLTY: When did you first venture beyond the science in the lab?
I was already doing a radio show at my campus radio station, which was music focused, but I decided to take it as an opportunity to explore my interest in science through media so turned my slot into a science radio show— to mimic the documentarists and artists who were inspiring me with the way that they explored non-fiction topics.
I ended up moving to Montreal and discovered that there were a bunch of artists and even a community lab that were bringing people to explore biological sciences through their own creative disciplines. So there were not just artists, but documentary filmmakers, media theorists, different types of critical thinkers who had their own kinds of methods for asking questions about science. I became fascinated with that and learned a lot about BioArt and the appropriation of biotechnologies to make art rather than to just do research for whatever other scientific outcomes that are generally planned.
FCLTY: What value can these kinds of interdisciplinary approaches add to science overall?
A problem in science communication realms is that there’s often this didactic thing where you’ve got the expert and they’re telling the public ‘what’s up in science’ in a unidirectional way. I was fascinated with the way that some artists break that open when they show up in the lab, unexpected, and start to use science for other means that just research, and then communicate what they learned back to the rest of us through the display of their work. It isn’t about window dressing science so that the public can see it as a pretty picture and understand it with a nice metaphor, it is getting us to think about science in different ways and question the values that are built into it. I think artists are good at pointing that out and showing you that science has been wrought with human experiences that aren’t built into the way that science tells its own stories.
I remember always being so frustrated with how poorly communicated, both on a visual and sonic level, scientific information could be when it’s put in a really dry broadcast environment. Like we’re talking about the natural world here.
Or about the ways in which humans are modifying it with their technologies. That’s fantastically colourful and it can be whimsical and the kind of stuff that moves hearts and minds.
FCLTY: I was actually just reading your post on the MIT blog from back in February and you quote Sarah Davies in regards to this public engagement of science. She’s talking about the ‘importance of site, embodiment, materiality, and emotion in understanding how science experiences make audiences feel’. Can you elaborate a bit more on what that means?
There hasn’t been much attention given to understanding how experiencing science makes individuals feel the same way that experiencing say, immersive art exhibitions, can affect an individual. For example, why was I so inspired by David Attenborough?
What is it about our past experiences that shape the way we see science when it’s out there, inviting us to engage with it?
It’s about the choices that an exhibition curator or a documentary filmmaker has made in their work in order for us to feel like we’re engaging with it. How does that resonate in our lives afterwards? How does it cause more interest in that topic or how does it actually deter us away from it?
FCLTY: So how can we change the way people experience and feel about science? What are some new things that are going on that might encourage this?
There’s so much experimentation going on right now, which is pretty exciting. I mean there’s everything from pop-up, guerrilla art pieces going on in the streets to listening events where people gather in the basement of a boat in a wharf somewhere and you listen collectively in the dark to science documentaries on the radio. People are just getting creative and not paying attention to the way they’ve been told science operates.
FCLTY: Right, I think you refer to this playfulness in the same article. ‘It is precisely when science is not taken too seriously that engagement with it becomes so powerful.’
Totally, that’s all part of it. We shouldn’t overlook the potential of science to also be entertainment. Stories need to have a hook and they need to raise questions. We often get served science in this fashion where we humans seem so sure of ourselves and we tell you all the facts but there are ways to tell those stories that inverse that model and still ask the hard questions.
To look at science as something that wants to seduce you to stay a while and to figure it out for yourself. So I think it’s just about letting go of academic baggage and treating it like other art forms.
FCLTY: Speaking of new ways of treating science, can you tell us a bit about synthetic biology? What is it and what got you so interested in it?
Synthetic biology is one of those things where if you have a room of synthetic biologists and you ask them each what it is, you’re going to get different answers. To some people it’s about writing life from scratch, to others it’s about standardizing biology so that it works like engineering using genetic pieces that can work together in standardized ways. Basically, what fascinates me about it is that it’s a more holistic and organized approach to redesigning living systems in a variety of top-down and bottom-up ways. You know, it kind of disrupts our familiar categories of life, of living systems, of the artificial, or the natural, and of the relation of humans to the rest of the natural world as we modify and make it.
FCLTY: You cover the DIY biology movement quite a bit, which similarly throws some of these traditional approaches upside down by having community labs and opening up not only the conversation but also actual participation for the average person. Could you tell us a bit more about where it came from and why?
Back in the day science wasn’t a professional thing wrapped away from society. In the 19th century in Britain, for example, the figure of the “gentleman scientist” (yeah unfortunately the term is gendered) had the time to explore the natural world in his home study and did it as a leisure activity, not as a job. Before that there were the alchemists who shared their ideas and inventions with each other in what arguably might be called the first community labs. Over a couple centuries, as the structures of society changed, a totally different model of how science is practiced arose, one that now has a more or less clear line drawn between leisure and work. Scientific research today is generally institutionally bound and it becomes more inaccessible to the layperson as the tools needed in order to do it become more high-tech, knowledge-intensive and expensive. But in 2008, something called the DIY (“do-it-yourself”) biology network arose first in Boston, and then quickly spread around the world. They argued the need for a non-hierarchical knowledge sharing network that could enable anyone who wanted to get involved with doing biological and biotechnological experiments to do so.
Within a few years, several DIY or community labs popped up around the world, and now there is a diverse collection of DIYers or “biohackers” learning and doing biotech together in garages, kitchens, backyards, squats, and properly outfitted labs all over the globe. The idea behind it is that you shouldn’t need a PhD in genetics in order to understand and work with genetics – and they make an effort to democratize the way that science is done and passed on. Some of the DIY labs are messy, unorganized, and extremely amateur. Some of them are highly structured and have membership models that you can join like a gym. A lot of them support anyone from highschoolers to bus drivers to grandmas to get some experience in the lab if they want to. There are so many DIY labs now across Asia, North America and Europe that it becomes impossible to summarize what they all do in any sort of blanket statement. As a German biohacker once explained to me, it is not so much a cultural movement as a “scene.” Some DIYers have corporate interests in selling the technologies they create, while others want to create free science-activist tools for people in developing countries to use in their local areas, while others just want to tinker and learn or make art with biology.
FCLTY: Ok, so you’ve done a lot of weird things. You’ve gone to a concert for wolves, recorded the sounds of Iceland, started a bi-monthly salon-style performance night for creative women, and been a NatGeo production assistant in Marrakesh…and this is probably 16% of your list of accomplishments by age 29. How do these things generally come about?
The cheesiest thing, and it’s totally a huge part of who I am, is that I’m an inspiration addict. I just want to stay as inspired as I possibly can so whenever something pops up that makes me excited and seems to have this contagious inspiration and can fight off jadedness about the world, I go for it.
As well, I guess I’m a little fond of the absurd *laughs* I always have been.
FCLTY: What are some of your weirdest, greatest, most favourite moments?
The trip to Iceland was one of my favorite things. I mean…I’m a sound nerd. I love telling stories through sound but I also just love sound for the sake of sound. So there’s this guy, Chris Watson who was a Dadaist musician from the group Cabaret Voltaire and is also the head sound recordist for an incredible number of BBC productions, including most of David Attenborough’s wonderful nature documentaries. He leads a sound recording trip once a year in Iceland because it’s his favorite place in the entire world to record. I’d been on the waiting list for this thing for quite a while and I finally got to go. He’s just this…sound guru. It’s a wild experience to be around him. He’s just so knowledgeable and so humble and has all sorts of amazing equipment that I will likely never be able to afford to touch in my life again. On that trip, you’re out there recording geothermal sulphuric vents and hiking volcanoes and driving a couple hours to get the sounds of a geyser exploding at 3 in the morning.
To be with people who are that driven to do something that obscure is an exciting thing because you learn a lot.
FCLTY: You seem to really succeed at making the obscure come alive. In the wide range of things that you do, what makes something feel successful to you?
Oh that’s…so hard. I guess my best barometer for success is hearing people tell me about their ideas in response to hearing a documentary or reading something that I worked on. To see if I created a question or something that was interesting or meaningful for them. Generally, if I learned something from it and people have more questions at the end of it and want to continue exploring then that’s a success.
FCLTY: So what do you hope for yourself and other people to get out of the work that you do?
I mean I hope it is refreshing sometimes, compared to other ways that they might have explored a scientific topic. I hope there is sometimes an aesthetically surprising dimension to it or just a quizzical question that gets raised. And I’m not saying I do this perfectly at all. I’m striving to learn about this constantly, about how to make it worthwhile for someone to experience. How to tell a better story and how to make that human connection and that’s kind of a career-long project that I’m just starting to dive into.