Transdisciplinary collaborations are at the heart of a university’s creative genius. But what makes them successful? For the How We Collaborate series, we ask collaborators to talk about the process of working together.

Twenty feet above the ground, Roanoke-based choreographer and aerialist Lynsey Wyatt wrapped two red aerial silks around herself and paddled her legs like a swimmer under the sea. Behind her floated an image of a crimson sunset over calm ocean water.

Suddenly, the video backdrop shifted to roiling waves in a storm, and Wyatt’s acrobatics intensified to match the ominous energy. She billowed the silks like sails and spun herself upside down and around. As a voiceover described the effects of climate change on oceans and coastlines, Wyatt's movements telegraphed the danger and drama of storms — the subject of research by Nina Stark, associate professor of geotechnical engineering in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

This unusual art-and-science outreach project, funded by a $5,000 SciArt seed grant from the Center for Communicating Science, turned Stark’s work on coastal erosion into an emotion-tugging aerial acrobatics show that reached audiences that don’t typically show up for scientific presentations. Here, Wyatt and Stark share how they collaborated and what it meant for them.

How did you two meet? 

Lynsey Wyatt: In spring of 2021, the Center for Communicating Science organized a collaboration incubator for scientists and artists who were interested in creating cross-disciplinary collaborations. The center hosted a whole day of getting to meet everyone, doing some different activities to help you see if there was some kind of synergy. With Nina, I was like, “I really like the way this person speaks about their work. I think they're really interesting.” 

Nina Stark: I thought with Lynsey there was a connection there. I had no idea what it means to be an aerialist, but Lynsey was open enough that I could just say that and it didn’t break the connection. 

This sounds a bit like a speed-dating event. 

Nina: Yeah. And I think the professional dating kept going, because we started having lunches and coffee and just telling each other what we were doing. Because how do you find a start for something like this? We come from very different places and have very different perspectives. You have to learn from each other first.

Lynsey: At the beginning, it was more like an informational interview. Acrobatic spectacle is really powerful, and I think it has the potential to elevate important topics. But before I understand what's important in the field, I need to know the basics. I told Nina, “Send me some grants that you've recently written, send me papers that you've published.” That introduction gave me a jumping-off point for conversations with Nina so I could ask informed questions. 

Why were you both interested in finding new ways of engaging audiences around scientific research?

Nina: As researchers, we should have the aspiration to communicate our research to a broad public — not only thinking about papers, papers, papers or being a big name in my little research community, but hopefully also, “Will I make a difference?” 

Lynsey: I think with topics like climate change, you want there to be an emotional connection to an audience. People understand things through stories, right? And if you can bring in something that people are already engaged with, like acrobatic spectacle, topics that some people might want to turn from, they actually turn toward. Then there's an opportunity there to educate the public and try to create cultural change. 

When did you first perform this aerial acrobatics collaboration?

Lynsey: In fall of 2021, we did a site-specific performance in Duck, North Carolina. 

Nina: The Outer Banks is a traditional vacation area — you know, the postcard scene of nice weather and the beach. But conditions can change. A key element of the performance was communicating this transition from calm conditions — the happy vacation ocean — to storm conditions. That’s at the core of our research: understanding, with climate change and sea level rise, what are we looking at in the future? We cannot always just say, “Oops, there was another hurricane.” This will very likely increase in intensity and frequency, and we have to look at preparation and how we can make communities more resilient. In the performance, that struck me close to the heart. 

How did audiences respond? 

Lynsey: I did a little Q&A with the kids afterwards, trying to see how much they gathered from the performance. They actually used the words, “Climate change is making these storms happen.” 

Nina: I think there were a couple of people who said that they drove half an hour to come there. There was certainly a good amount of people in the audience who would probably not have shown up if I’d done a scientific presentation. But they stayed around for questions, so I felt that was a really great success, to reach some of the people that I have a really hard time reaching out to. Lynsey’s language, the more emotional connection, reached these people.

Lynsey: There's a statistic that most people in the U.S. can't name a living scientist. I think that if we can use something like the arts as a bridge, it can be really powerful for elevating evidence-based solutions.

Did you encounter challenges along the way?

Lynsey: I asked Nina, “Can you write a script? I'll do a voiceover on top of music, and we can put that to the aerial stuff.” When she gave me what she’d written, I was like, “Hmm, this is too highly technical.” It wasn't going to be digestible to the audience that we were focusing on. So coming back to that and being like, “How do we make it engaging to a broad audience?” I realized we needed to reduce it down and focus on the emotion — and that, luckily, is what I know how to do.

Nina: When I took that attempt at a script, I remember I said, “This will be pretty bad, I've never done this before, but I’ll try.” I think I was always very clear, like, “I don't know, so I really rely more on you here.” I think that's important in a collaboration, that you really utilize and realize both people’s strengths.

How did this collaboration change you? 

Nina: It certainly changed my perspective of the importance of investing time and effort into thinking about different ways of communicating what we are doing, because it was very, very rewarding to reach these people that I felt I may have a hard time otherwise reaching. That was a very big change for me: to not only have the vision or the hope that this could work but actually seeing that it does work, and that it's worth it. 

Lynsey: It made me realize that in collaborations, I need to focus on the impact first and then see where my skills can be of service to that. I did not do my hardest tricks. It's like, no, I need to figure out the tricks that are going to assist this dramatic arc that's going to help people understand Nina's research.

Nina: For faculty who are willing to do these experiments, there needs to be some more support from the university. That we have the Center for Communicating Science is already a big step in this direction; that there are seed funds for something like we did is probably pretty unique. I think everyone agrees that outreach is important. But what people have to realize is that to do creative outreach, to go out of the box, to find new concepts — that is hard work. 

If you had any advice for a scientist who is considering collaborating with an artist, what would you tell them? 

Lynsey: Look for an artist that has genuine interest in what you're doing and find shared values, because that's really what makes a strong partnership. Finding artists that value the science part is really where you're going to end up with a good collaboration. And if you're a scientist, you have to be interested in the artist’s work. 

Nina: I love art. I just cannot do it myself. 

What do you wish you had more time for in your life?

Lynsey: Collaborations like this, to be honest. I know a lot of important work that needs to be done, and there's just not always easily accessible funding. With grant chasing, I wish that I had more time to actually do the work. 

Nina: Meeting interesting people like Lynsey, who are clearly living around us but not necessarily walking into the same building with us every day. I wish I had more time for just sitting in a cafe and chatting with people coming in — meeting more people and finding out more interesting ideas.

When you do go to that cafe, what's your order?

Lynsey: I walk over to the coffee shop down the street from me every morning and get a latte. Or every morning I can afford it. 

Nina: I like my coffee, and I like it with milk. Being German, I have a very close relationship to pastries and cake. I always have a stack of emergency cake in my house, in case it’s a bad day. So getting a coffee with a small pastry or a bigger pastry, that's always good.

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