Scientist Spotlight: Samantha Jones – Blending Science and Poetry
Samantha Jones is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Calgary studying carbon cycling in the Canadian Arctic. In addition to her scientific work, Samantha is also a poet, published writer, and workshop instructor at the Alexandra Writers' Centre Society in Calgary. Samantha recently wrote a poem suite, "Ocean Acidification" (published in Watch Your Head, March 2021) that uses visual poetry to educate and help people form a connection with ocean acidification. Samantha shares with us her creative process, scientific background, and her interests in combining science and poetry.
What is your background?
I am a geologist by background. I completed a BSc (Hons) in Earth Sciences at Dalhousie University and an MSc in Geology at the University of Calgary. I moved to Calgary in 2006 for an industry internship and graduate school and then remained in Alberta to work as a petroleum geoscientist. After a maternity leave, I returned to university to start my PhD in geography with a focus on climate and carbon cycling in the Canadian Arctic. My current research investigates carbon dioxide exchange in a connected lake – river – coastal ocean system in Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay), Nunavut. I am particularly interested in seasonal variations and high-temporal resolution cycles.
Now, let’s talk poetry! I have always wanted to be an author. As a child, I was an avid reader and I always dreamed about seeing my own works on bookstore shelves. While I was working in industry, I was able to complete continuing education courses through the University of Calgary and I earned a certificate in Creative Writing. This was the beginning of carving out some serious time and space for my creative practice. A big part of my writing journey has been seeking and establishing community. I am a three-time alumna of the Iceland Writers Retreat and an alumna of the Banff Centre. In 2020 and 2021, I expanded my presence in the Canadian Literary scene by founding and facilitating the Diverse Voices Roundtable and Writing Circle for BIPOC writers at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre Society (Calgary, Alberta), where I also teach writing workshops. I regularly publish in literary magazines both online and in print, and my writing is included in three anthologies.
What motivates/inspires you to combine science and poetry?
I am interested in the natural world, in particular everything earth and geoscience related. Environmental themes recur in my work, as well as places that evoke these themes. My poetry often takes me back to locations that I visited during my training as a geologist and with my family on rockhounding or birding trips. I enjoy talking about scientific themes in poetry because it grants me permission to let my emotional self be present in the work, which is not typical in academic writing. This is particularly useful when writing about environmental challenges because it invites the reader into understanding through personal connection. Poetry has an ability to perform scientific processes on the page. At present, I am working on a new project that embeds scientific data into the structure of poems. There is lots of exciting work to be done in blending science and poetics.
What inspired you to write about OA in particular?
OA is an interesting topic to write about because it is lesser-known compared to other climate issues. I like the idea of exploring something that is invisible in a sense, but poses a substantial threat. I think OA deserves more attention and public awareness and I was confident that writing about the topic would land it in front of audiences that were previously unfamiliar with the phenomenon. Writing my recent poem “Ocean Acidification” (published in Watch Your Head) was a unique opportunity to write a piece that bridged the divide between the scientific and literary communities that I operate within. I am drawn to writing about the scientific topics I know well because although fact checking is still required, I have largely completed the research through my daily work and I am able to get the story onto the page with a relatively uninterrupted flow.
What was your creative process in writing these poems?
I started with the idea for the visual elements in “Ocean Acidification” and I began writing by drawing six circles, which would then become a constraint for the text. I wanted the poem to explain OA, or at least provide enough information that someone could seek out additional resources on the topic. In addition, I wanted to take the reader from the first circle, which represents both an intact system and the healthy bodies of organisms that build carbonate shells, to a diminished and disappearing version of what was once real. The progressive dismantling of the circles was a way to perform OA on the page. I also used erasure poetry techniques to progressively remove text and alter the narrative to mimic dissolution.
How did you want people to interact with these poems?
You can interact with the “Ocean Acidification” poem in different ways. If you are listening to a recording, you will get the narrative. If you read the poem on the page, you will get the narrative and view the text performing the OA process. You can also unfocus your eyes and get the take-home message from the overall visual elements in the piece.
Is there a take-home you hope those who read your poems are left with regarding OA?
I hope people are interested to learn more about OA and the challenges that it poses. I also hope that this work helps demonstrate that there are many avenues for science communication and that creative outputs and deliverables should be afforded the same value as scientific contributions.
How have you found the reception of these poems to be? Have you learned anything new/interesting/unexpected from the experience?
The interest by the scientific community to “Ocean Acidification” was moving. There were people all over the world and at all stages in their careers reading the work, which gave my voice a broad reach. It was cool to be able to get people from different areas of my life together in the same space through social media to enjoy the poem together. It was obvious that there is a thirst for this type of content and that continuing to produce science poetry is something that is of interest to multiple communities.
What is one thing you hope scientists take away from your creative works?
One of my key messages is that science and creative pursuits like poetry or art are not separate. Scientists are inherently creative and innovative and I hope to contribute to a space where people feel comfortable taking risks and engaging in creative practices.
What excites you most about combining data and poetry?
I love the idea of combining scientific processes and data with poetry because I think that it prompts me as the writer to interrogate data differently. When I write “data poems” I need to think carefully about how I want to visualize the data on the page through the narrative or visual elements. The product is something that could not have existed without the data and scientific knowledge or the poetic practice. The generated poem is a new entity that uses both science and art inputs equally.
Anything else you’d like to say?
Just that intuition is a very powerful thing. If you have a dream or an idea that you think could be unique, take some time to explore it. Wonderful surprises can grow from interdisciplinary seeds.
To learn more about Samantha, her writing, and her research, follow her updates via Twitter (@jones_yyc).
You can also read her poem suite "Ocean Acidification", published in Watch Your Head, here:
Samantha's "Ocean Acidification" poem will be featured in two events for World Oceans Day on June 8th and 10th (2021). Learn more and register for these events here:
June 8th (3 pm EDT)
June 10th (4 pm EDT)