Faculty Spotlight on Beth Osnes and Rebecca Safran
Q: What drew you towards or inspired you to this collaboration between art & science? What was the initial inspirate for Side-by-Side? Be as descriptive as you feel comfortable being here!
A: Beth and I have been working together for many years as co-founders of Inside the Greenhouse (www.insidethegreenhouse.org). We are both very passionate about the infusion of hope into the narrative of our current climate crisis. Let’s face it – the news is really bad and the consequences are difficult to face. Yet, hope can help create new, positive narratives and actions related to this crisis and our future on planet Earth. I (Becca) study the evolution of new species by primarily examining one of the most widespread vertebrate species on our planet: the barn swallow. Barn swallows are cool for so many reasons, among which they live side by side (literally!) with humans as they construct their nests on human-constructed structures like barns and bridges. Because of this, barn swallows have a special relationship with humans all over the world and are also very accessible for observation. Beth and I have merged our observation of the natural world through science (Becca) and through art (Beth) to create the Side by Side program. We focus not only on the human-barn swallow side by side relationship but also the art-science side by side relationship. Our overall goals are to build confidence in youth interested in science but perhaps afraid they are not cut out for it, to create a sense of belonging in a learning community, and to have all participants feel valued. Another expression of our side by side approach is viewing humanity and the natural world side by side, not one having dominion over the other. Through this approach, we continually seek to move beyond dominating relationships and hurtful hierarchies in every way.
Q: What excites each of you most in your respective fields right now and why? How does your excitement translate into your recent collaboration or recent individual works (or both)?
A: There is always something interesting going on in our research group. We are always making new discoveries about barn swallows in terms of how populations differ from one place to the other and how their genomes are evolving in different ways. Like most field biologists, we were not able to travel to our international field sites during the pandemic. Luckily for us, barn swallows are everywhere so we can study then right on the CU Boulder campus and beyond. So, we’ve made great use of our time here in Colorado doing fieldwork locally. Our team has also been working on issues related to diversity and equity in STEM – there is still a lot of work to be done there! So, another project we are very excited about is focused on ‘Belonging in STEM’. Check out our recent publication here.
This Side by Side project also includes the close partnership of Chelsea Hackett, who holds a PhD in Educational Theatre from New York University and co-founded with Beth SPEAK, an organization that supports young women in empowering their voices for self and civic advocacy. Included in this is supporting their voices in expressing their insights into interspecies relationships and their creative expressions of what they learned and felt about these birds through their art and science research. Our project always culminates each summer in a public sharing.
Q: Are there plans for future collaborations between the two of you? If you are comfortable sharing, what are you each currently working on?
A: Are there ever plans! The sky is the limit here (pun intended). Beth and I are working on a large grant to expand our work with partners like the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The hope is to expand parts of Side by Side so that they have broader reach to youth outside of Boulder, in partnership with local birding clubs and camps. In the meanwhile, we will offer our third summer of Side by Side programming in summer 2022, have several films featuring this work that are being viewed by people all over the world through entry in juried film festivals, and are constantly working on plans, projects, and activities related to this work. It is so much fun! Our film from our first summer in 2020, Side by Side, was an official selection for the Eugene Environmental Film Festival and The Hague Global Cinema Festival. Already our newly released film from the summer of 2021, Bird’s Eye View, and been selected for the Colorado Environmental Film Festival. We are thrilled to be shining a light on youth expression for a future that’s looking up.
Q: What is the most impactful piece of advice you ever received in relation to your expertise and field of study? What advice would you give to those also looking to collaborate outside of their fields?
A: Becca- “Do what you love." As a scientist, I am really outside of my comfort zone when it comes to artistic expression. As scientists we are taught to be objective and distanced from what we study. But really, I love what I do and I love the science we do together as a team in my lab group. So, the advice ‘do what you love’ for me now really means: its OK to feel an emotional attachment to the scientific work we are doing and the people we do it with. I am endlessly fascinated by barn swallows, the different kinds of relationships they have with humans all around the word and I am also passionate about the relationships Beth and I are forming together with a focus on this lovely bird!
Beth- My favorite guiding principle of late is “do less better,” which is followed closely by “we’re in a hurry, so let’s take our time.” I want to focus in on doing a specific thing—supporting young people in having and expressing extraordinary relationships as a part of the natural world—better. I want to play with time while doing this, ironically slowing down to avoid doing harm and to reconfigure how we approach the most basic relationships. I do this to co-create with youth an equitable, survivable, and thrive-able future for all life and the eco-systems upon which life depends.
*Beth and Rebecca were the recipients of the CHA Climate Change Grant in 2020.