The Art of Conservation

Nelson Institute graduate student bridges art and science to influence the conservation conversation

August 16, 2018

For UW-Madison graduate student, Julia Janicki, art has always been a way to express the complexities of science. Driven by her passion for conservation, Janicki has spent the past few years bridging her scientific knowledge with her love of art to bring environmental challenges and animal conservation to the forefront.  Now, she is expanding her efforts through the Nelson Institute Environmental Observation and Informatics Professional Master's Program, where she is learning to use science and technology to create infographics and visuals that will help to advance organizational response to environmental change.

A lifelong learner and environmental advocate, Janicki says her passion for art and environmental conservation began during her childhood in Taipei, Taiwan, where she was surrounded by people who had an appreciation for both. Eventually, family connections moved Janicki to Wisconsin where she attended UW-Madison, earning an undergraduate degree in conservation biology and Japanese and a master’s degree in entomology. While her main focus was learning the science, Janicki sought out courses that allowed her to express the science visually, such as cartography and web programming.

“During my first master’s degree in entomology at UW-Madison, I took four cartography courses and one geographic information systems (GIS) course. Thanks to those courses, I became really interested in visualizing spatial data,” Janicki said. “Through my cartography course I also started to get into web programing because part of that course taught me how to use a Javascript visualization library (D3.js). Then, I started experimenting with and learning web design on my own, mainly because I wanted to reach a broader audience instead of just people in academia.”

To expand her reach, Janicki began working with conservation organizations to increase public outreach and understanding through web design and infographics. After graduation, this work led her to Okinawa, Japan where she began working as a computing technician at a biodiversity and biocomplexity lab.

“My first project there was to visualize an ant database, so I made an interactive web mapping application so you could see the ranges of different ant species and the diversity of ants overall and by region,” Janicki said. “After that, I played a pretty big role in an environmental monitoring project. The goal was to establish an observation network to measure, monitor, and understand the terrestrial environment of Okinawa, in a collaboration between scientists and the people of Okinawa. We were collecting data from 24 sites across Okinawa using camera trap data, arthropod data (SLAM traps), and more. I set up a database to help store and organize all the data, and I also created the website for the project in order to communicate the process and results to scientists as well as the local community."

Janicki was also involved in a number of other projects that bridged art and technology, including a project that required the use of CT scanners to create 3D models of ants. All of this work utilizing visuals, technology and science, fueled Janicki’s desire to find new ways to communicate science to the public through the visual arts. It was around that time that she connected with a U.S. diplomat who was interested in ocean conservation. A diver and ocean conservation enthusiast, Janicki had recently gone swimming with hammerhead sharks off the coast of Yonaguni, a western island of Okinawa and was eager to help promote the conservation of sea creatures, specifically sharks and sea turtles. So, Janicki worked with the diplomat to apply for a grant to assist with sea turtle conservation. As a part of this project Janicki created a website, compiled sea turtle literature for locals, visited the Kumejima sea turtle museum to translate some educational material, attended the International Sea Turtle Symposium and organized a sea turtle educational art show and fundraiser to make the conservation efforts more accessible to the public. 

“I like science but I think the bigger picture is communicating that science and getting it out to people, so I got a bunch of artists involved and worked to organize an art show,” said Janicki. “The first one was successful, so I decided to do another event for sharks and rays, especially sharks because I think they are one of the most misunderstood creatures.”

In fact, the success of the art shows served as proof to Janicki that communicating science through the use of art and visuals can create real change in environmental conservation. Looking to expand her knowledge and her reach, Janicki discovered the Nelson Institute Environmental Observation and Informatics Professional Master's Program and decided to return to Madison to gain new insight into informatics. 

“I decided to come back to UW-Madison because I wanted to make a bigger difference and do a bit more,” said Janicki. “So, I applied to the Environmental Observation and Informatics program as I thought learning more about data analysis would help me with my conservation efforts.”

This summer, Janicki began the 15-month program which combines hands-on, in-person training with distance learning. The program includes individuals from diverse professional and educational backgrounds who are interested in learning more about the three pillars of the program, remote sensing and integrated technology, modeling and analysis, and innovative leadership.

“The most intense course so far has been remote sensing. Since it’s a four-credit course we have a lot to complete,” Janicki said of the program. "While attending the program, I am also working for the Environmental Investigation Agency as a data visualization consultant on the side to create interactive stories, infographics and interactive and static maps for them, which is perfect since it combines my passion for conservation and my interest in using visual means to promote it. For my final project for the program, it would be great to do something similar where I can combine my passion in conservation and my technical and design skills."

The final project, a leadership placement and internship, requires students to work with an organization to apply their knowledge and create real-world change. While she won’t begin this portion of the curriculum until next summer, Janicki is already exploring options that she hopes will allow her to increase wildlife trade awareness through data and visual representations.

“Personally, I have a lot of organizations in mind for my final project that I would like to work with,” Janicki said. “I’m interested in the wildlife trade side of things so I am looking at places like Vulcan, Inc. in Seattle or WildAid. I would like to work with sharks, but that’s a bit more specific, so if not that, just wildlife trade it general. Wildlife trade is a big problem, but I don’t think too many people know a lot about it.  When I look into people working on it in academia, I can’t find a lot of groups focusing on that subject.”

While working towards her degree, Janicki is also looking to join a screen printing studio in Madison and connect with other local artists who are also interested in using art to bring attention to conservation.

“If I could do more art to raise awareness on the side, that would be great,” said Janicki.

Overall, she is just looking to make a difference and use what she has learned in the past and her new knowledge from the Nelson Institute Environmental Observation and Informatics Professional Master's Program to create change.

“I believe that EOI is a field that intends to use advanced technologies to gather data about the environment and the wildlife, as well as to figure out what to do with that data in order to drive conservation in more efficient and effective ways. I would just love to do that work on a bigger scale and reach a broader audience, make a bigger impact,” said Janicki. “I’m not sure specifically what I’ll end up doing after the program, but I want to continue to use art and visuals and integrate the science, technology, communication and conservation, which is what I enjoy.”