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Cultivate SC holds workshops combining science lessons, art instruction, and happy hour

Common Ground

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A molecular biologist, an art teacher, and a painter walk into a wine bar. No, this is not the beginning of a joke, but it is the beginning of a story about three friends who decided that science and art are best served with wine and conversation.

Biologist Barbara "Bobbie" Lyon had just gotten back from working on her post-doc in the UK and was chatting with friends Brienne Oliver and Lisa Shimko, over wine, about maybe starting a science cafe in Charleston. Oliver, an art teacher and Shimko, an artist, weighed in: maybe they could combine Lyon's love of science with their love of art. "The connections were always there," says Lyon, "Whenever I would share my science they would geek out and I have always loved art and wish I could take my time to create my own art techniques. We decided that since Charleston has such a fun arts scene ... and we have so many great scientists, why not cater to both?" And Cultivate SC was born.

This will be the organization's third spring workshop series. In the past, they've hosted scientists who presented brief lectures on everything from seaweed to dinosaurs, and artists have taught techniques from basic watercolor to wire animal scultpure. "All walks of life have participated," says visual artist Shimko, "It's been a great mix of ages and backgrounds because no experience is required to attend."

The setting, How Art Thou Jazz Cafe & Tapas Bar, is conducive to casual conversations, and, of course, sipping a little vino. "Science is really being taken through the ringer these days," says Lyon, "we wanted to make science inclusive, and show people that it's not intimidating. And people have such busy lives ... we wanted to create a fun event with neighbors getting to know neighbors, creating a kind of dinner party science." For $15 ($3 for students and educators) participants can discover what these two seemingly disparate fields have in common. Lyon, who studies genes and proteins in cell biology, has spent the last 10 years focusing on algae and how it feeds back into climate cycles. "The goal of science is to make the world a better place, and that requires creativity and discussion." Lyon, who also teaches at Bowdoin College in the fall, took her algae research and applied it to an art project. "The students took pictures of algae under the microscope and made them into plates, then drew the algae, all while learning about its ecological role. The drawings became part of an exhibit on campus."

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The workshops (there are three more this season: April 18, May 2, and May 16) are two hours long, from 6 to 8 p.m., and start with an interactive science presentation. The workshop on Tues. April 18 features College of Charleston professor of entomology and ecology Dr. Brian Scholtens. Scholtens has a very specific passion — butterflies. "I started early on as a butterfly collector," says the professor, "A bunch of kids in my neighborhood would go around with nets catching butterflies, and I just kept doing it." Scholtens is now a butterfly watcher, or "butterflyer." He and two other researchers are writing the first comprehensive book in South Carolina on the state's 165 butterfly species. His Cultivate talk, "What We can Learn from Butterflies in South Carolina," draws on this research. From thousands of collected site records, Scholtens says that we can learn about what kind of habitats butterflies like: "There's a set that only live in the sandhills, some in the mountains, and a whole set that only live in the wetlands. This research often goes along with other kinds of organisms that live in these habitats. We can look at what's changing, and why some species may no longer be here." The Department of Natural Resources can then utilize Scholtens's research to make sure that certain habitats where "rare" species occur are protected. But butteflies in general are not rare, says Scholtens, "people always ask me 'where are all the butterflies' and they're here, you just have to put away your phone and look up."

The natural world also plays a big role in Shimko's work, "Many of my paintings include wildlife, sometimes specifically those whose numbers are in decline, other times there are subtle thematic parts of a painting that speak to the mindfulness of nature we are part of and need to conserve." Lyon says that she urges participants to loosen up about the art-crafting segment of the workshop. "They aren't mistakes," she says, "it's a process. In science, like art, 90 percent of the time I'm figuring out what not to do next time, or it's a happy mistake of 'Oh this turned out cool.'"

Shimko says that the "casual cafe atmosphere assists in facilitating conversation among participants." Maybe you wouldn't know a Silver-Spotted Skipper from a Monarch if it came up and landed on your nose; maybe the thought of sketching something, anything, is simply not in your wheel house. There's a common thread in these two worlds, just not a common language. Cultivate is trying to change this. "These workshops are essentially what Brie and Lisa and I would do on a Saturday over wine," says Lyon. We just wanted to widen the invitations."

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