Sierra Weir in front of her natural pigment painting Naturalize.

Sierra Weir blends art and science skills to strengthen others’ relationships with their local ecosystems.Credit: Dagny Felker

Sierra Weir is an environmental educator and pigment artist at Three Rivers Waterkeeper, a non-profit organization in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that advocates for local waterways. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology in 2020 at the College of Wooster, Ohio, where she spent a year studying the pigments of Betta fish. She contributed a sculpture, which was based on spectrophotometry data from jewel beetles, to the 2021–22 Iridescence exhibition at the Louisiana Art and Science Museum in Baton Rouge. From June to October, she was a featured artist at the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden’s Unearthed exhibition, where she showed a painting created with natural, locally sourced pigments.

As an artist, Weir explores pigments from native and invasive plants, ochres, clays and muds, found anywhere from her home’s drive to local nature trails. Using her background as a biochemist, Weir makes watercolour and oil paintings, as well as handmade paper, inks and dyes that reflect ecosystems in the nearby Rust Belt, a de-industrialized region that includes parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Weir sat down with Nature to discuss her career turning points, development as an artist and tips for other creative people working in research.

Which came first, your research or your pigment art?

When I was researching Betta fish, looking into the genetic regulation of the skin pigment melanin was a coincidence. At the same time, I was taking art-history and ceramics classes; I had my hands in mud all the time when I wasn’t busy in the laboratory. After an entomology lab internship in my final year, I decided I wanted to keep studying pigments, but I wanted to do it in bugs.

Beetles are arguably the some of the most diverse and abundant animals on Earth, but their incredible coloration is understudied. So, I started a graduate programme in 2020 at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge to identify the pigments that had developed in one family of jewel beetles and how that related to their evolution and defence mechanisms. Their colours are thought to be for defence. A type of poorly understood chemical called buprestin, which is found in only this group, is toxic to birds. The production of this toxin, as well as the beetles’ red coloration, causes a phenomenon called aposematism, the use of a warning signal by an animal species to protect them from predators. The birds see the beetles’ red colour, or a specific pattern, and avoid eating the insects, because they associate this food source with the pain of the toxin.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I was cut off from my ceramics courses, but I was intrigued by all the red clay found north and east of Baton Rouge in West Feliciana Parish, as well as on the lands of the Choctaw and Chitimacha peoples in Louisiana.

How did you pivot from being a student to being a lab technician?

My work in university was a dream on paper, but that wasn’t how it was working out in the day-to-day reality of the lab. Leaving that master’s programme was the best decision for me at that time. And pivoting to a new career in 2022 as a research technician allowed all these other things to open up for me. I have found that, even if you’re scared, if you truly know you need to change directions, it will work out in your favour.

Something that has continually been changing my life for the better is trusting my intuition, unlearning external pressures and reconnecting with how I’m actually feeling. My philosophy used to be much more aligned with the conventional career path, focusing on looking good on paper and adding a line to your CV every week. Now, I’m restructuring my goals and asking myself, “How do I want to feel in the future?” and “How do I set myself up to live a sustainable life emotionally?” Whenever you get in touch with yourself, that is the best information you can get.

Does being an artist influence you in the lab and vice versa?

Absolutely. I draw on my intuition, which involves a lot of creativity and visualization, whenever I do experiments. I think creatively about my experiments and expand on what I think science can be. Research can often be limiting and reductive, so having creative and historical interests helped me to expand my work in the lab.

Furthermore, witnessing life on a molecular level is hugely inspirational to my art. As a research technician, I did a lot of imaging, such as fluorescence confocal microscopy, so I got to see various organelles lit up by a dye or a fluorescent tag, or calcium flooding in and out of various parts of a cell. This has influenced the relationships that I have with different materials because I could visualize certain structures that are universal across life or see their variations.

What’s next for you?

With my experience in entomology and from studying mycology on my own and with the Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club, I’ve come to understand these under-rated, and sometimes overlooked, sectors of ecology. And that makes me even more excited to get other people interested in these relationships, too. There’s so much untapped outreach, education and research potential in small things that really do take observational awareness even to begin asking questions about them.

So, I’m now doing another pivot, circling back to environmental education — I did loads of outreach as an entomology student with primary-school children in Baton Rouge.

I just left my job as a research technician at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania to become an environmental educator at Three Rivers Waterkeeper. I provide free educational programmes about the health of the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela rivers as part of an AmeriCorps programme, which provides a stipend for jobs that offer a public service. I get to be creative with educational materials, work closely with the Pittsburgh community, clean up our precious waterways and even use my lab skills to help test water samples for contaminants.

My outreach work in the past was incredibly rewarding. So, I’m letting go of the on-paper scientist experience and leaving my research-technician role; I want to get more involved with the community and to encourage relationships with local places.

What are your tips for other artist-scientists?

Lean into everything as a teacher and consider other ways of knowing. What can I learn from how this makes me feel? What can I learn from how these landscapes are interacting with each other? How can I learn from Indigenous communities that have been here for so much longer than I have? Going slow and changing things up should be expected.

My big challenges have been colonialism and societal expectations that we approach everything with urgency, which are super intertwined. The way to combat them is by exploring these other ways of knowing, slowing down and releasing yourself from the expectations of others.