Although she’s only recently started doing digital artwork, Christi Cummings has loved art since she was a little kid, especially painting, watercolor and fine detail pencil work. Over the summer, she interned with a NASA-funded program for beginning engineers at Arizona State University. The internship landed her job with the program, working with finances and graphic design. Cummings is also pursuing a degree in environmental engineering. Her piece, Looking to the Future, was shown at the 2019 exhibition of The Art of Planetary Science.
What is your position with the NASA program like?
I’m getting the ground under my feet in engineering. I’m not working for them as an engineer, but hopefully we’ll get to that point one day. What I do is help manage their finances and also a lot of graphic design. I’ve sort of redone all of their logos, I’ve put together different pamphlets, I’ve created a few little art pieces to pass around at conferences. I’ve always tried to make sure that those are a very appealing image that will spark something in people. If you just get this pamphlet with a bunch of words on it, no one really wants to sit there and read all that. They’re going to want to see something.
Do you think that presenting things visually, as art, can help people understand science?
Absolutely. Not nobody, but a lot of people, are going to have a harder time understanding the lingo of an essay or peer-reviewed piece. Art is just a different way to relate to a broader spectrum of people. Overall, some things are hard for people to wrap their heads around. If you just spit out a bunch of facts about our CO2 emissions, say, or a bunch of facts about what’s going on with climate change, people instantly kind of shut down. Like, I don’t want to be told these kinds of things, but if you can visually see it, it evokes a different, more emotional response.
Why is it important for people to see science in different ways?
I think it’s really important to be able to promote science in a different way, because it can be really unappealing to some people. It can be just like, numbers and graphs, and a lot of people don’t really understand what that kind of thing means. If you can present science in an appealing way, visually, it brings a lot more people into your arena. You know, they can relate to it a little bit better by seeing something and appreciating something visually. That is really important, especially when spreading positive messages about climate change or anything.
Do you think, in general, that we’re doing a good job communicating science in a relatable way?
If we can get it on a relatable level, if someone can see something that evokes an emotional response in them as opposed to just ‘here’s a bunch of graphs’—that is how you get more people on board with your message. When climate change first started becoming a big thing and awareness started to spread about it, it was all just bad, bad, bad. I guess, it is all bad, but we can approach it from kind of a different angle to allow more people to get involved. I recently went to a visualization conference in Maine, where it was a bunch of people from all over talking about how we’re presenting visualizations to promote science or math. It’s really awesome how that is helping to shape the new wave of teaching people about those topics.
Is there anything you would change to make science less intimidating for people, so that they might get involved more?
With social media, we are doing a lot better job of getting those things out there, but I have found that for me, we need to focus less on the bad side. Scientists tend to be like, here’s all the facts and it’s doom and gloom. I respond better when I see something focusing on how beautiful the world actually is right now, so maybe if we all worked together, we could try to protect that. There is a lot going on, but it’s not only deforestation and other terrible things. It’s sometimes better to think about what we currently have. Here’s this beautiful world, let’s take care of it—look at it from a more positive angle. I think that’s a great way to productively look at things, and it’s more inspiring. It makes people less scared.
Do you think that part of that is because scientists sometimes have a difficult time talking about their work?
For sure, they do have a very difficult time. I think social media has definitely enhanced people’s ability to spread awareness on certain things. Like, people create little videos about the subject to kind of summarize it, versus a whole thing you need to look at, and read through the whole thing to try and understand what they’re trying to say. In and of itself, the short videos are art. They’re edited, they’re filmed, they’re put together with imagery so people can actually see what’s going on. They’re purposeful. Being able to combine two things you’re passionate about is really great, especially if you can promote that to better the world in some way. I feel like that’s not really something, kind of like art, that a lot of people think about. There have to be those people who know the science but also the writing or the art, or whatever.
This interview was conducted in person | Image “Looking to the Future” courtesy of Christi Cummings and The Art of Planetary Science