Here be dragons: RISD’s Nature Lab


(Pictures taken in RISD’s Nature Lab)

Here’s a riddle for you: where can you find a dragon, a preserved dog fetus, and a whale vertebra, all in one place? The answer is 13 Waterman St, a spot that is incredibly close to Brown’s campus and is home to RISD’s Nature Lab. Having heard of it last summer, I made the not-so-long trek over to the building last Thursday, unsure of what to expect; would I find one small room with a couple of fish tanks?

This was most certainly NOT the case.

Walking into the main room of the Nature Lab can be overwhelming. Not because it is disorganized or crowded, but because there is so much to explore. Cabinets and drawers line the walls, filled with specimens of all kinds, from butterflies to minerals. There are all types of plants, and multiple tanks and cages, homes to turtles and other living animals. Larger preserved animals occupy space outside the cabinets: you might notice a bear, a deer, or the puffer fish hanging from the ceiling.

What’s really cool is that you can take out, handle, and study most of these specimens. Basically, you feel like a kid in a candy shop and keep asking, “What’s that? And that??!” At least that’s what I did, to some extraordinarily helpful Nature Lab staff, including Lab Coordinator Betsy Ruppa, who answered many of my questions about what the different specimens were.

Ruppa said the facility ends up functioning as a library. Students often use the Nature Lab as a resource for various projects and are even allowed to check out many of the objects. Entire classes, many from RISD but also other schools, will come in to use the space. The lab additionally helps students out in a myriad of ways beyond providing them with draw-able subjects. Students of everything from apparel to architecture come in to investigate the forms, shapes and textures of natural objects. Ruppa explained that students use the lab to study “anything that relates to nature and how nature solves its problems of design.” For example, she explained that an architecture student might want to examine the structure of a bird’s nest. Clothing designers might need inspiration for prints. The way bones connect can give insight into how hinges work; the way certain insects’ wings unfurl and then return to their resting position mirrors the way the top to a convertible opens and closes.

Neal Overstrom, Director of the Nature Lab, explained biomimicry, an aspect of design in which the designer approaches problems through a biological lens. For instance, a designer might solve a problem by determining how nature solved a similar problem through evolution.

Overstrom has backgrounds in marine biology and landscape architecture, and so he is well-acquainted with both science and design. In talking to Overstrom, I realized that the Nature Lab also provides a medium through which art and science can intersect. Natural science is as approachable for students in the arts at it is for students in the sciences. The Nature Lab thus becomes “a gathering place for conversations about art and science.” The lab is “a community of people who are passionate about exploring nature through art, design, and science.”

Alright, alright, I know– I promised you dragons. Most of the specimens are what they seem, but some aren’t authentic and are either models or the results of student projects. Among the genuine, here’s some of what I found in the lab: there is a “Cabinet of Curiosities,” which looks like something out of Harry Potter with all its jars of bizarre-looking items. That’s where you can find the preserved dog fetus, as well as a preserved goat fetus, floating around in clear liquid.

Connected to the main room is the bone room: skulls line its shelves, as well as all types of other bones. A couple of the highlights include a whale vertebra, whose body (the round cylindrical part) was a fair bit larger in diameter than my hand, and a snapping turtle skull, which looked like it was out of a ghost story.

If you go downstairs, there is a room with live sea animals, including moon jellies and seahorses. One RISD student, Megan Jerbic ’17, is running a project there, in which she breeds shrimp of cool colors. Also downstairs is a room filled with microscopes and microscopic slides, which contain such items as frog embryos and salamander larva skin.

And the dragon? Under a small glass case in the main room sits a creature that looks an awful lot like a miniature version of the fantastical creature. When I asked Ruppa about it, she said they have a machine that freeze dries animals and thus allows students to pose them however they want. One student used the machine with a lizard, and then sewed on bat wings to make the dragon, a sort of chimera.

The nature lab is a bit like a chimera in and of itself: a place where science and art meet, giving you a whimsically practical tool that is most certainly worth using, especially if you need a bit of inspiration.

nature lab

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