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Author: Joyce Morgan
Date: 17 October, 2013

Dr Lisa Roberts sits at her computer and clicks on a sex video. On screen, an elaborate mating dance unfolds before a firm embrace and the main event.

The players are Antarctic krill, tiny crustaceans whose reproduction is critical to our planet’s survival.

“They’re playful, quirky and they have individual behaviours,’’ she says.

Dr Roberts is queen of the krill. She has painted images of them, including on her kitchen doors, created animations and co-authored an article about them in a leading scientific journal. She even has a packet of krill in her freezer.

Krill are a vital food source for whales, penguins and other Antarctic creatures. Yet this ecology is at risk if our present rate of fossil fuel consumption continues and oceans become increasingly acidic.

“Over a certain level of acid in the water, krill eggs don’t hatch,’’ she says. “And if we don’t have these massive numbers of krill in the southern ocean the whole chain of interdependence there collapses.”

Her passion for krill, and for science, was sparked by a trip to Antarctica on an arts fellowship in 2002.

“That transformed my life,’’ she says. “[Until then] I thought art was a personal response to the local environment and that was enough,” says Dr Roberts, the great-granddaughter of artist Tom Roberts.

She was on a research ship in Antarctica the day the news was announced that former US president George Bush and former Australian prime minister John Howard would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol. At that stage Dr Roberts did not understand the significance, but the scientists aboard did.

“There was deathly stillness on the ship among the scientists from around the world. It was like mourning. It struck me in that moment that there was something really serious I needed to know about.”

She set about collaborating with scientists, obtaining a PhD and creating work – including paintings, visualisations and animations – underpinned by scientific understanding. She is currently a Visiting Fellow at University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) in environmental science, design and transforming cultures, and Living Data program leader.

“It’s part of a telling a story that’s bigger than all of us – the story of climate change,’’ she says.

The little “invisible” creatures have captured Dr Roberts’ imagination in her efforts to tell this big story.

“It’s the tiny things that are really endangered and sensitive to the chemical changes that are happening. They’re the lynchpins of life,’’ she says.

She indicates a large blue painting above her computer. It is a single cell of an algae known as Emiliania huxleyi and it helps sequester carbon.

“They’re microscopic, but you can see them from space when they bloom,” she says.

Dr Roberts, a former dancer, believes collaborations between scientists and artists are vital in communicating knowledge to the wider community. And at a time of potential catastrophic environmental change, the need to communicate what is at risk is urgent.

She recently curated the Living Data exhibition, art from climate change, as part of the Ultimo Science festival, which brought together artists, scientists and the public.

“Art can contribute to analysing data – not just illustrating it. When animating the krill sex dance, for example, I imagined myself dancing with them to work out what was going on.”

This story written and produced by the University of Technology, Sydney, for Brink, a publication distributed monthly in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Read article at the Sydney Morning Herald