bryant explores intersection of science and art

Raquel Bryant, assistant professor of earth and environmental science and assistant professor of environmental studies, received her undergraduate degrees in Geology and Biology from Brown University, and a PhD in geosciences at University of Massachusetts Amherst. Before coming to Wesleyan University, she was a postdoc at Texas A&M University where she worked with the Gulf Coast Repository for the International Ocean Discovery Program. She shares her experience as a scientist and activist, and highlights her recent retreat to Florence, Italy, supported by a Bailey COE grant!

Hello Professor Bryant! What are your primary areas of study and engagement in the field of geoscience?
For my scientific research, I study the past by looking at sediment cores or outcrops of rocks. I’m interested in the geochemistry of the sediments and the organic matter stuck in the sediments, as well as the microfossils that are in marine sediments. I have studied tiny plankton called Foraminifera that have hard shells, so they get preserved in sediments and rocks. I can look at sediments from a hundred million years ago and understand what the ocean was like by looking at these small fossils. The main goal of my research on plankton is to construct a picture of what oceans were like at a particular time. Plankton, especially Foraminifera, can provide valuable information about changes in species composition, shape, size, and distribution, offering insights into past ocean environments. Foraminifera act as good proxies for oxygenation. Some paleoceanographers use equations based on the relative abundance of certain foraminiferal species to estimate oxygen levels in the ancient oceans. This information is helpful to understand hypoxia and the impact of terrestrial activities on ocean ecosystems. Foraminifera’s rapid evolution makes great biostratigraphic markers. By calibrating the evolutionary timelines of certain species, scientists can determine the relative age of rocks. This approach helps track changes in the environment over time, providing essential insights into the ways oceans have changed.

I also do a lot of activism and advocacy work in geoscience. I hope to broaden participation in the field, because to me it is essential for understanding climate change and contextualizing  what is going to be happening in Earth’s future. The field of earth science is primarily white and not very welcoming to many different marginalized identities. I want to show that a scientist can be an advocate and activist. 

This summer you received a Bailey College of the Environment grant and were able to travel to Florence Italy. What was the purpose of this trip? 
This summer I was exploring the intersection between earth science, art, and justice. I took a group of scientists and two Wesleyan students to Florence, Italy, where we had a retreat and we met with scientists and artists from all over the world who incorporate Earth into their artistic practice. We went to a number of exciting events. We had a gallery showing, went to a villa retreat with art students from Germany, and explored museums across the city. We had rich discussions about how earth science and justice intersect. There were 12 of us on the Florence trip total, including myself and the others from Wesleyan.

We met with artists from the Recovery Plan, which is a nonprofit thinking about black art and how blackness, especially in places like Italy, is not always acknowledged, but still a force for the culture there. When you think about a period like the Renaissance, it’s often considered a fully European endeavor. However, there were influences from other cultures that really drove the creations of that time. This nonprofit seeks to highlight black folks, because they historically have not received credit in the art world. My mission is to understand how we can advance justice in geoscience. We thought that we could work with people who are doing this kind of work from an artistic angle. There are so many intersecting stories that are important to represent. 

What were some of the highlights of your trip to Florence?
One memorable experience was an open gallery featuring artist Linguiswa from South Africa, whose work was inspired by Earth. One artist named Batira, a sound artist and musician, shared that she had an interest in science, but was discouraged from pursuing it as a girl growing up in Brazil. She has an art lab that incorporates some science. It was really transformative to be able to talk to artists about their practice and what research means to them, and have them be able to ask us questions about earth systems. 

Another highlight was that one of the artists, Emmanuel from Eritrea, cooked a full Eritrean meal for us. He is from Milan, so he took all the food to us in Florence on the train! We ate in this amazing venue, in a place where artists have residencies. They have a small kitchen and open air seating. We had some of the best conversations I have ever had; it was really invigorating to have that exchange.

Would you consider using your background in science to collaborate on an artistic piece?
Yes, I was involved with Ocean Filibuster, and we’re bringing the show to an upcoming ocean sciences meeting in New Orleans. Especially from my vantage point of trying to change geoscience to make it more inclusive, clearly many of the efforts so far have not been working. Maybe people in theater have something to show us, because artists are often the ones who can create cultural change. The process has been exciting for me because I’m also an artist, a singer, songwriter, and performer, so I can see how those avenues for action are really powerful. I still have not found how to completely blend my interest in the arts with my science. I feel like pursuing that intersection is a similarity I have to many Wesleyan students who try to balance a variety of interests. I believe I am a better scientist because I can explore my ideas through music. The Bailey COE has also supported other projects, like helping me organize events like Ocean Jam, the outdoor open mic during Earth Week. 

How did the Bailey College of Environment grant contribute to your personal and academic goals?
The Bailey COE grant has definitely fueled the intersectional work between traditional science and identity. During the trip to Florence it allowed me to take two of my students with me, who were interested in using earth science and environmental science to promote justice. They had worked with me the semester before digitizing some of this physical archive that we had of the conference, and it was wonderful that they could be a part of it. 

How did you get the idea to develop this retreat to Florence?
When I was at University of Massachusetts I got a fellowship called the Bomery scholarship, named after Randolph Bomery, the first black chancellor of UMass. I wanted to learn more about him, and realized that he started a number of great academic programs and initiatives. In 1972 Bomery hosted the first National Conference of Minority Participation in Mineral Sciences and Earth Sciences. The attendees talked about the same problems we are discussing 50 years later. My friends and I thought that it was wild that there was no collective memory in the field about this, and so we decided to have another conference last summer. You can see the first chapter of the documentary on the Geoscience Conference here.

In the process of planning this conference I reached out to Bomery’s family, and connected with one of his grandsons. He has a grant to help him learn about and honor his grandfather’s legacy, and was looking for earth scientists to help his research. We ended up collaborating, and working on a documentary film on the second conference we put on. Then, we decided to host this retreat to Florence in collaboration with The Recovery Plan. You can see the Florence retreat video here

What do you think is necessary to lead to the changes you hope to see in the field of geoscience? 
We have been building an archive of our work. When we look at what Bomery was doing in 1972, there are very few pictures and records of what happened at his conference.I want initiatives to improve justice in geoscience to be more sustained. I want the field to be more inclusive and oriented towards helping communities. We have to make progress over a long period of time; it cannot be a short campaign, it must become embedded into our practice as scientists.  

It is important to work towards creating a collective memory for projects that you want to have a legacy. As geoscientists, we think about time often, and have to grapple with uncertainty. Sometimes we have to estimate what happened during hiatuses of data. We cannot let this be a barrier to our science, so we have to find creative ways to overcome those uncertainties. That inspires me when it comes to activism. It is a fact of life that we will lose some information and work over time. What we can do to make sure there is work preserved is to create a physical record so that even if some is withered away, pieces will remain. At our conference we had physical boxes where people could write their reflections and takeaways. We created virtual documentation. I also have installed in my lab collective collages that we created at the conference, so as long as my lab is part of Wesleyan, those pieces of the archive will be there. 

 It’s also important to create intergenerational spaces so knowledge can be passed down over time. I think the classroom is a great place to experiment with that, especially with community engaged learning.