Roger Hanlon is a senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where he is also director of the program for sensory physiology and behavior as well as professor of ecology and evolutionary biology in affiliation with Brown university.
Lizzie Kripke: What do you study?
Roger Hanlon: Our studies on camouflage have to do with visual perception. We study color, contrast and pattern as a means of animal communication or camouflage, looking at the animals that change the most: cuttlefish, octopuses and squid.
How is this pertinent to art and design?
There is a continuum between camouflage and conspicuousness that can be exploited artistically, design-wise and biologically to make something blend in or stand out. We’re learning a lot from artists about this, and that’s what modern science is going towards—collaboration with different disciplines to solve the hardest problems. You need more tools, more information, and a more sophisticated way to take complicated concepts and chisel them down to the meat.
How did you begin collaborating with artists/designers?
It started when I was invited by Mark Milloff at the Rhode Island School of Design to challenge his freshman design students with a camouflage assignment, and their work was critiqued from both an artistic and scientific direction. Students were amazingly inventive. This will culminate in a course offered to both biology and art/design students, co-taught by myself and professor Milloff.
Has this influenced your research practice?
Yes, we’ve invited student artists-in-residence into our lab for an extended period, engaging our scientific personnel with an artistic view of how to show some of our complex principles and, vice versa, challenging the artists to look at that information and make their own products to help answer scientific questions.
So artists in your lab act as both researchers and communicators. Can you see this happening elsewhere in science?
We study color, contrast and pattern in biology, so maybe our type of science is a little more amenable to the artistic side of things, but I think that once demonstrations are made, folks in different fields will also see its value. Microscopy is a particularly good example. The more sophisticated the microscope, the harder the interpretation of the image. How do you visualize these tiny, complex structures and illustrate them within your own field, much less to the general public? We’re also interested in applied biology, taking elaborate skin patterning and coloration and working with engineers and material scientists to create products that emulate those capabilities. The problem is that we’re talking the lingo of biology to engineers, and it’s hard to find a common language. I think there’s a growing awareness of scientists working on things that need to be visualized or the design of which needs to be explained more clearly to collaborators of wildly different disciplines.