In Conversation With: Mieko Temple

Self-proclaimed graduate student by day, artist by night, Mieko Temple’s stunning ink drawings of animals are characterised by the lines and shapes of natural patterns she finds in her subjects.

California-based Mieko got her Bachelor’s degree in Animal Science with a pre-Veterinary focus and is currently finishing her Master’s in Animal Nutrition before she heads off to study Veterinary. She spent six months as a research fellow with the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, studying exotic animal nutrition. I was curious whether she’d had to choose, as an accomplished scientist, between her love of science and her artistic talents.

“I don’t necessarily feel like I had to choose. I spent my high school elective courses doing science classes and then also doing art classes – I took marine biology and blown glass. It wasn’t until I had to start looking at university that I was considering: do I need to pick? Art school sounded beautiful and exciting, but I didn’t feel like it was going to mentally stimulate me the way I felt challenged (in a good way) by science. So I naturally gravitated towards one versus the other, but now I have this outlet where I can draw and make things that I feel have more purpose than doodles on the side of my notepad.”

Mieko Temple

The extent of Mieko’s scientific knowledge is evident in the complexity of her drawings. She gushed a little when I told her I could see it.

“I take so much time to understand the proportions and the muscling that are unique to each species, and a lot of that has come from my anatomy and physiology background. In my undergraduate degree we did tonnes of necropsies on animals that had humanely passed away, looking at the structures, where the muscles inserted or originated, how they were laying in the body and how they would move. So my knowledge of anatomy and physiology is a huge influence.”

Given her talents in both areas, I asked her about the consequences of the current trend towards prioritising science in schools over the arts, and how this could impact scientists and the science itself.

“I feel like sometimes it’s very easy for schools to lean towards STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) subjects without considering that there are so many ‘soft skills’ you gain from being involved in things that are more arts- or humanities-driven.

“I had classes in school that had so much space for unfettered wondering, and it allowed for this creativity and broadening of our horizons that I don’t feel like science gets to do sometimes. Sometimes it feels like science is so controlled by the scientific method that we get stuck in our ways – it forgets that questioning and being curious and having that creative energy allows us to push beyond what we know already. It’s so valuable, and sometimes we don’t use that enough.”

But Mieko was hopeful that we are recognising this.

“This new trend of having STEAM, where you include the Arts in the STEM world, is really important to help inspire that creativity in science. Especially for younger kids that might aspire to be scientists but might also need to have that creative and curious energy to push them through it.”

She smiled and shrugged.

“Because sometimes I get a little bit stuck, too.”

As well as being a scientist and artist, Mieko is a science communicator. She was excited to tell me she had just been accepted into the Skype A Scientist program, which connects scientists to classrooms around the globe, but she primarily educates people online through her social media. She told me art plays a role in science communication by drawing people in.

“Humans are such visual creatures. Especially with how we consume information now – from social media, through the internet – we are drawn in by strong visuals: stunning photographs, moving pieces of art, and interesting infographics that aren’t too convoluted but aren’t too simple. I think that art has a unique advantage to engage with an audience so that they feel a personal and tangible connection to then delve in deeper.

“Science does a great job at being as specific as possible when finding the answers to questions, but in doing so you ostracise people who are less familiar with the jargon. And I think it’s something that scientists in general need to be better trained in – how to effectively communicate with all types of people. Well-developed infographics, dynamic art and graphic illustration are all things that inspire engagement with people on a deeper level that helps bring them in, something that art can do better than just plain science can.”

Connecting people to science has been especially important for spreading public health information during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mieko commented that it’s been both a positive and negative trend that there have been lots of infographics, because “some of them have been terrible and some of them have been very effective.”

Though she is enthusiastic about all kinds of science communication, the focus of her art is endangered animals, and she is passionate about conservation.

“Your average person isn’t going to be able to go on a conservation trip to save black rhinos somewhere, so I think citizen science is incredibly important because it helps to engage people with their local area, it encourages them to volunteer and support local wildlife preserves or national parks.

“But a lot of conservation is romanticised – ‘we’re saving the animals!’ – and there is so much more than encouraging people to donate to wildlife conservation organisations because, at the end of the day, the reasons these animals are endangered are greater humanitarian issues. And there’s opportunity for conservation to be way more successful than it has been already, if the focus is on creating a more sustainable infrastructure that supports the local people, and allows for safer agriculture/wildlife interfaces through education and employment opportunities.”

Mieko stressed that the kernel of passion that starts with loving cute and fluffy animals can mature into efforts to protect all endangered species.

“I think using arts and visuals to engage people on an emotional level so they can then connect on a deeper level, moving past that romantic ideal, is a really important way that science, art and science communication can blend together for a more successful and sustainable conservation future.”

You can find Mieko Temple’s art through her website and etsy store, and you can learn about the wildlife she draws at her Instagram.

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