Article on Nature Careers: "How to shape a productive scientist–artist collaboration" Feb 2021


Excerpt from article

*To read the full article with interviews to other artists please visit: Full Article in Nature

“FERNANDA OYARZÚN: Define success and expectations

Scientific sculptor and marine biologist at the Coastal Social-Ecological Millennium Institute, SECOS. Based in Puerto Varas, Chile.

Artists should know not only that scientists are interested in making their work more accessible to the public but also that grants often require outreach or public engagement. For artists, it is becoming more important to work with scientists if they are to have a voice on issues such as climate change.

I grew up in Chile, and explored both art and science as a teenager and undergraduate. During my PhD programme on larval ecology at the University of Washington in Seattle, I did a science-illustration programme. As I studied how functional morphology affects evolution, I took a course in ceramics because I wanted to make 3D images of marine larvae. I now divide my time roughly into three categories — science, art and art–science collaborations.


I advise interested scientists and artists to go to virtual spaces — Instagram or Twitter, for example — to follow people who do arts and sciences. Most of the time, scientists get really excited that someone is interested in what they are doing. And artists have nothing to lose by sending scientists an e-mail.


One common mistake that scientists make is to invite artists to their laboratory, to get inspired, without building any sort of relationship first. A partnership has to start with trust and respect. Each person needs to be humble about what they know. The overarching goal is the process of creating something new together — and the resulting exchange and reshaping of ideas.


Fernanda Oyarzun working on a sculpture of a coconut-octopus for the series "Marine Consciousness”.

Sculptor and marine biologist Fernanda Oyarzún in Chile works on a rendering of an octopus.Credit: Fernanda Oyarzún

At the start of a collaboration, it’s important to define some tangible outputs. This seems obvious, but it is not. Sometimes artists and scientists might have different goals, which is fine, but it’s good for both parties to make that clear. Second, the goals will probably not remain the same throughout the collaboration. They will change. If they’re not changing, the collaboration might not be working. I find that scientists are often surprised by how interactions with artists can shift their perspective on their research. The bottom line is to keep communicating. If that stops, so does collaboration.


In the past decade, I have noticed a substantial increase in interest in science–art collaborations, and last year year was no exception. If anything, people and institutions have been more open to innovating and exploring because of the pandemic, in an effort to be creative while reinventing how they teach classes and communicate information. I have been invited to give at least three or four times as many talks on art and science as usual — at schools, universities and for the general public, both in Chile and in the United States.


Mutual respect is crucial. There is no way someone is going to collaborate with you if you are standing above them. Frequently, a scientist will say something like: “I know everything, and let me tell you about this.” That kills a collaboration right away.”