Our Interview with Dr. Jennifer Willet

Our Interview with Dr. Jennifer Willet

January 10, 2021

Art and science intersect more often than you might think. Art is a way to express the prowess and beauty of science in a creative way that is accessible for everyone to enjoy. Recently, Algae Research and Supply had the honor of interviewing Dr. Jennifer Willet, director of the INCUBATOR Art Lab at the University of Windsor in Canada. The INCUBATOR Lab is a fully functioning lab that researches the intersection of art and science. Despite the COVID closures, the lab has been able to get research access to continue work.

Dr. Jennifer Willet by Dylan Kristy, 2018

 

Dr. Jennifer Willet is an Associate Professor in the School of Creative Art at the university, and the Canada Research Chair in arts, science, and ecology. She is a traditionally trained artist, having earned a BFA from the University of Calgary, an MFA from the University of Guelph, and a PhD from Concordia University at Montreal in interdisciplinary Humanities (essentially building her own program from the foundations in humanities). Dr. Willet is a very talented illustrator and painter, and has a background in printmaking, specifically intaglio (copper-etched plate printmaking). She has always been interested in science and medicine and its interaction with the human body and human subjectivity. Furthermore, her background in printmaking crossed over into the world of lab work, as both have high standards for sterility and dexterity.


During her education, Dr. Willet created art in many different mediums with the common themes of science and biotechnology. During her undergraduate studies, she drew cadavers while studying anatomy, and later went on to work in a Human Anatomy Lab. This introduction to lab work proved to her that she could fit into a place that she initially did not feel she belonged. Dr. Willet’s travels also brought her to Symbiotica - the world’s leading Bioart research lab - at the University of Western Australia. There, she researched the techniques they used to fuse science and art. Eventually, while working for the Art and Genomics Centre at the University of Leiden, Dr. Willet dreamed up what would become the INCUBATOR art lab. 

The INCUBATOR Art Lab by Justin Elliott, 2019

As a fully functioning lab, the INCUBATOR Art Lab adheres to laboratory health and safety guidelines. As Director, Dr. Willet must attend health and safety meetings and complete paperwork in addition to doing all the fun science stuff. Prior to having her own lab, Dr. Willet traveled and worked hands-on in other labs. While she loved working with scientists and laboratories around the world, it became difficult to work around the main goals of the labs she was using. She loves having her own lab, which allows her to put her best effort and all her focus into her own projects. Dr. Willet works with students and academics from all realms of academia, including biologists, philosophers, and artists. The intersection of these disciplines aids in the creation of projects that educate the public.


Shifting gears to algae, here’s what Dr. Willet has to say:


“I love algae! Algae is the number one producer of all oxygen on our planet, it might actually save the day. We all need to spend more time talking about algae.” 

The INCUBATOR lab has two algae art pieces: Algae Spiral and The Great Lakes Algae Organ. The goal of these algae projects is to give people a different perspective on algae. In the Great Lakes Basin - where INCUBATOR is located - the main perception of algae is of the harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie. Dr. Willet wants to change the perspective on this wonderful microorganism.

Jennifer Willet, The Great Lakes Algae Organ, 2016 Photo: Caitlin Sutherland

 

The Great Lakes Algae Organ is a street organ designed for algae. It is a mobile algae lab that provides agitation, nutrients, and light to its microorganism passengers, all the while playing “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. Dr. Willet has presented this art piece both in galleries and out in the communities. Audience members are at first intrigued by the art, and then sucked into discussions about algae as a biofuel, oxygen producer, and as an invasive species. 


The Algae Spiral is meant to bring people a more meditative experience with algae. Spirulina, a popular algae and superfood, is pumped through tubes in a pattern on the wall. Watching algae move through the tubes harmoniously is very meditative, and is meant to bring people closer to algae.

 

Jennifer Willet, Algae Spiral II, 2020 Photo: Scott Lee


Fun fact: the algae in these art pieces is from Algae Research and Supply! 


“The way I feel about my job is the way you feel about your dog,” Dr. Willet jokes. She absolutely loves what she does, and often has moments of “I can’t believe this is happening… this is really my job!” Dr. Willet’s overall goal is to educate others about a “biotech future”. Data and formulas can only do so much in terms of solving the world’s problems such as climate change or the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Willet seeks to redefine what a biotech future could be. She draws from research methods outside the scientific method that can help solve problems hundreds of years from now. The intersection of art and science allows us to break away from the rigid data-driven aspect of science in favor of a collaborative, communicative method of solving the world's problems. Dr. Willet envisions a biotech future for everyone that engages people socially and culturally while working towards an egalitarian and sustainable future.


Algae Research and Supply thanks Dr. Willet for her time and for her contribution to biotechnology education. To see more of Dr. Willet’s projects, click here: https://incubatorartlab.com/ 

-Erin F. Fox, 2021