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Below the surface

Professors, students collaborate to quantify how much atmospheric soot sticks to bird feathers


At first glance, you’d think the ceramics hanging on the wall of Elm Fork Education Center’s Eagle Exhibit Hall as part of the art-meets-science exhibit POLLUMAGE are beautiful. And you’d be right.

As works of art, the pieces — which feature the unmistakable outline of bird feathers — are stunning. But like all great collaborations of art and science, they also reveal a stunning truth: the imprints are a mixture of the heated feathers turning to ash and the atmospheric black carbon, or soot, they contained.

“I always want my work to have depth and meaning,” says Anna Lee, a senior photography and ceramics major in the College of Visual Arts and Design, who created the pieces through raku firing, a process that involves removing pottery from a kiln while at bright-red heat and placing it into containers with combustible materials. “I can literally leave a carbon imprint on the ceramic’s surface that represents the atmosphere we’re enclosed in. So, the work contributes to the research as opposed to being something that is just aesthetically pleasing.”

The research she’s referring to is a two-year collaboration, which seeks to estimate how much soot bird feathers accumulate and determine if they can serve as biomonitors of atmospheric pollution. The collaboration, funded by a mentoring grant through UNT’s Office of the Provost along with additional sources, includes faculty members Dornith Doherty of the College of Visual Arts and Design; Alexandra Ponette-Gonzàlez and Matthew Fry of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Science’s Department of Geography and the Environment; and Jeff Johnson, of the College of Science’s Department of Biological Sciences. Lee and Claire Pitre, a geography graduate, were the undergraduate research fellows on the project.

“We’re a working group that takes a grassroots approach to looking at the air,” Ponette-Gonzàlez says. “We wanted to make people more aware of the soot that’s there — the air is invisible to the human eye. We’re so dependent on our sight when it comes to recognizing problems.”

Moulted chicken feathers mounted for outdoor exposure

Bringing soot to light was an involved process. Pitre ethically collected the feathers, which were shed from chickens, then cleaned and mounted them onto wire frames that were then placed by Interstate 35 and at a campus bus stop. The feather screens were left in place for five days while video cameras documented the exposure 24/7. Doherty created a time lapse sequence that dramatically demonstrates the exposure of the feathers and unaware pedestrians to heavy traffic and buses.   

Once the feathers had been exposed, Doherty — who says one of her guiding questions for the project is “How do we make the invisible, visible?” — and Lee photographed the feathers under a scanning electron microscope to capture the deposits of black carbon.

Undergraduate Research Fellows Clair Pitre and Anna Lee at the exhibit of POLLUMAGE at Elm Fork Education Center's Eagle Exhibit Hall

“I knew the idea of the project was to collaborate as scientists and artists, but the impact of that didn’t really sink in for me until later,” Pitre says. “Collaborating with an artist makes science more accessible to the public. Talking to my friends about the project, I’m trying to explain carbon and pollution and all the scientific stuff, and lots of times, their eyes just glaze over. But to be able to show them Anna’s beautiful work — it makes people a lot more interested.”

Pitre and Lee both presented their findings April 2 at UNT Scholars Day, where Pitre displayed a poster of the team’s research and their findings and Lee explained the processes behind her photographs and ceramics. During Lee’s presentation, Pitre listened intently in the audience, even participating with details about the scientific aspects of the project when the audience had questions.

The preliminary results found that bird feathers may indeed be good biomonitors for measuring atmospheric soot. All the feathers accumulated measurable amounts of black carbon with the feathers near the highway accumulating approximately eight times more soot than the feathers near the bus stop. 

But those weren’t the only realizations to come out of the collaboration. Through the mentoring they received from Ponette-Gonzàlez and Doherty, both women are excited to embrace their roles not just as artists and scientists, but as a combination of the two.

“We are the next generation, and we are on the forefront,” Lee says. “Creative and scientific collaboration is essential to allowing students the freedom to explore the work they want to do. Claire and I are in separate realms, but our mission overlapped — and our different perspectives strengthened the other.”