Science often pushes knowledge forward, sparking discovery and helping us understand more about the world around us. Often seen as opposite to the sciences, art provides an outlet for expression and creative ingenuity.

But when these two join forces, the outcomes can galvanize audiences and bridge the gap between scientist and everyday citizen.

Jacob Barney — an associate professor from the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and affiliated faculty member of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute — alongside David Franusich, artist and multimedia designer for the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT), are partnering to bridge this gap in a creative and enticing way with their SciArt Collaboration. 

The partnership stems from grants funded by ICAT and the Center for Communicating Science as a way to connect science and art for a public purpose. 

“This past summer, I was involved in a Center for Communicating Science workshop to partner scientists and artists to collaborate, explore new ways of discussing science, and present it to the public,” said Barney, an affiliated faculty member of the Global Change Center and the Translational Plant Sciences Center. “This has funded the work that we’re doing now, which is looking at showing invasive plants in a unique context to broaden the audience's understanding of the role of these species in the environment.”

Barney specializes in invasive plant species research, focusing on the ecological consequences and management of these species. Franusich, on the other hand, explores transdisciplinary art with experience in public art installations and exhibit design. 

At face value, their collaboration seems unlikely, but the pair share an interest in ecological sciences and bettering the world in the face of environmental crises.

“It seemed like a really natural fit for the kind of work that I do and from the research that he does to bring that out to the broader world and do something creative,” said Franusich.

Barney and Franusich’s project highlights invasive plant species in Virginia by projecting images onto the species themselves. The projections convey the chaotic invasiveness of these plants that have strangled native species and local ecosystems. 

Using cellular automata projections that resemble hypnotic lines and “cells” interacting with each another, the duo bring to life the intrusive nature of these plants.

“The idea behind the projected content creation onto the plants is to get this feeling of invasiveness,” Franusich said. “Using some implementations of the cellular automata algorithms, it takes this energetic, colorful life and gives a sense that these plants are choking out the diversity of local plant life.”

Invasive species are not uncommon throughout the natural world. Since the inception of cross-Atlantic colonization, nonnative species have spread and critically changed many of North America’s ecosystems. Chestnut blight has wiped American chestnut from Appalachian forests as zebra mussels currently choke out lakes and local economies, for instance.

Many nonnative species can either become naturalized or incapable of spreading. Invasive species, though, are widespread alien infectors that cause economic, environmental, or health-related damage.

Found in all but four lower contiguous states, the ornamental tree of heaven has spread like wildfire across the New River Valley, crowding native plants and aggressively damaging infrastructure. This is one invasive species Barney and Franusich are highlighting with a tree invading an area behind Lane Stadium.

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The duo also projected images onto Japanese barberry at Pandapas Pond and Callery pear trees along Brush Mountain.

The hope is that this science-art collaboration will introduce invasive plant species to a broader audience in a more engaging way than a simple brochure or infographic.

Moving forward, Barney and Franusich will bring this collaboration right onto the Virginia Tech campus throughout the spring. The pair will set up an installation with a high-resolution montage of their work outside of Torgersen Hall. 

The installation will serve as an outreach and educational tool that can be taken across sites and viewed by anyone passing by; and anyone that passes by can have an effect on the spread of these species.

“Most invasive plants in the landscape were intentionally introduced, and many are still available at your local home centers for planting in your garden,” Barney said. “So one of the No. 1 things you can do as a citizen is before you buy, understand the species, and if it's problematic in our area, don't buy it. There are lots of native alternatives that provide many beneficial ecosystem services, look beautiful in the landscape, and are available locally as well.”

Invasive species continue to suffocate native life and impact local economies. The New River Valley is not exempt from these impacts. 

Barney and Franusich hope to show just how locally pervasive these plant species are and what we can do to limit their spread, one projection at a time.

You can learn more by joining Barney and Franusich as they present their SciArt Collaboration multi-sensory art installation, which will illuminate the socio-ecological impacts of invasive plant species in Appalachia. The event, which is part of Communicating Science Week, will take place at noon March 16 at the Creativity and Innovation District Residence Hall.  

- Written by Tyler Harris

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