The gap between the molecular basis of fish vision and the colour calibrations of a large-format printer may seem as wide as the space between UVic’s Biology and Visual Arts departments, but a recent collaborative project brought the two much closer together.
It started when Tom Iwanicki, a MSc candidate studying starry flounder opsin genes with Biology professor John Taylor, contacted Cliff Haman, Senior Academic Assistant in Visual Arts, with a very basic question: what is colour?
Iwanicki (left) with Haman and Taylor
“As biologists, we can ask ourselves questions about things like opsin genes and colour vision in fish and then, you would think, come up with various strategies to answer those questions” said Taylor. “But we quickly realized we lacked some very basic knowledge. For example, we wanted to print a particular colour on a sheet of paper. That is, we wanted the paper to reflect a particular wavelength of light. We had no idea how to do that, or even if it was possible. What about a second sheet of paper that reflects the same amount of light, but at a different wavelength? We asked the physics department, but they offered astronomers. So Tom focused on Visual Arts.”
The eyes have it
The experiment in question dealt with checkerboards and starry flounder camouflage. Starry flounders change the pattern on their back when they settle on a traditional black-and-white checkerboard—but what about one with red and green squares? Opsin genes encode the light receptors in the eye, and while humans are trichromatic—we have three different types of light receptors distributed among the ‘cone’ cells of our retina—fish have many more. “We know that species with only two cone cell opsins, like cats and dogs, can’t discriminate among as many colours as we can,” says Taylor. “We want to know if the surprisingly large fish opsin gene repertoire enhances their colour vision.”
Starring . . . the starry flounder
Iwanicki’s two-year experiment also hoped to discover if opsins could be influenced by raising the fish in different light environments. “We’re very passionate about going from molecular data to actual behavior,” he explains. “We discovered these flatfish are capable of active camouflage—they can change colour quite quickly and convincingly—so we honed in on using differently coloured and patterned checkerboards as a model for studying vision in general.”
After living in UVic’s Outdoor Aquatic Unit for six weeks under broad-spectrum (as a control) and green-filtered (test) lighting that mimicked ocean conditions, Iwanicki set out to discover if the opsins changed under different light environments—and if this also influenced their ability to camouflage. Unfortunately, Taylor and Iwanicki were out of their depth when it came to creating the essential test patterns; fortunately, UVic offers diverse facilities for interdisciplinary research.
The theory of colour
Using the large-format printer in the Fine Arts building’s Studios for Integrated Media, Cliff Haman was able to create consistent, reliable prints that matched the spectrophotometer-measured colour intensities. “We work with colour daily, and our labs are very well-equipped for the creation and manipulation of digital media,” says Haman. “[Biology] had specific requirements for various swatch colours and luminosity values, particularly when laid out in checkerboard patterns. Our imaging software provides superb control and accuracy with such colour data.”
The team with their colour patterns
Haman also assisted with photo documentation, which required calibrated, diffuse lighting and a fairly complex camera installation. “It can all boggle the mind of someone who’s not familiar with it,” admits Iwanicki. “Visual Arts wasn’t the first place that came to mind, but we luckily ended up going there. It’s just been fantastic.”
To be clear, the goal of the experiment was to see if the fish echoed the pattern, not the colour. “If we give them a red and green background, we’re not expecting the fish to turn red and green,” says Taylor. “Instead, we’re looking to see if they adapt to a smooth, mottled or disruptive pattern; the fish can do each of those things. If it recognizes a smooth pattern, it will turn a single colour, whereas mottled or disruptive patterns will result in a stippled or big-block colours.”
And the result? “They’re definitely camouflaging differently—which is quite exciting,” says Iwanicki. “As far as I know, no one has explored camouflage response as a way of figuring out what fish can and can’t see.”
Taylor is clearly pleased. “Obviously, we don’t know everything about vision, but if you think about the opsin repertoire as a toolkit, there’s way more tools in there than we expected,” he says. “The job of light sensitivity is much more diverse than we thought it was.”
For his part, Haman enjoys the opportunities offered by such interdisciplinary research. “When we collaborate in other environments, we’re actively exposed to new ways of thinking and doing—which to my mind is fertile soil for sprouting new ideas.”
Ultimately, Iwanicki is excited about how it all went. “A lot of research tends to reduce things down to their component parts, but if you can incorporate the bigger picture all in one study, that’s one of the more important avenues we need to be shifting towards,” he says. And while he may speaking about his individual experiment, his thoughts clearly apply to the unexpected pairing of Biology and Visual Arts. “And that is really cool and exciting.”
When it comes to researching a new play, internationally celebrated playwright and Department of Writing professor Joan MacLeod often takes inspiration from the headlines.
Joan MacLeod in rehearsals at the Belfry (UVic Photo Services)
From the murder of Victoria teenager Reena Virk to issues facing new immigrants and the importance of righting historical wrongs, MacLeod’s plays are universally acclaimed for their ability to present realistic characters grappling with key emotional situations. When her latest play, The Valley, makes its BC premiere at the Belfry Theatre, audiences will find themselves catapulted into a head-on collision between two of the defining issues of our time—law enforcement and mental illness.
MacLeod—also an alumna of the Writing department—says she was inspired by the case of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekański, who died as a result of RCMP tasering at the Vancouver airport in 2007. But rather than focus on that one situation, she decided instead to look at the pressures that may have caused the RCMP’s controversial response. “I started thinking about an altercation between a police officer and a person in distress,” she says. “As I did more research, I became really interested in that intersection between the mentally ill and the police, who are often front-line workers with the mentally ill—and not necessarily by choice.”
Clearly, MacLeod’s research paid off, as the reviews for the Belfry’s production of The Valley have been uniformly strong. In this review for CBC Radio’s On The Island, Monica Prendergast notes that “MacLeod is so good about giving us these truthful, private moments . . . when playwrights can craft these kinds of characters and scenes that move us, about events that may or may not touch our own lives, you can call that beautiful”. Adrian Chamberlain said in his Times Colonist review that the characters are “rendered with passion and sensitivity, brimming with compassion.”
Fellow Writing instructor Alisa Gordaneer praises MacLeod’s work in her CVV Magazine review, noting that she “clearly has a keenly tuned ear for voice, and the dialogue in this play is sharp, seething, and bang-on contemporary west coast, with not a spare word spoken by any of the cast. Even so, the dialogue is stunningly naturalistic, heightening the sense of listening in to regular people hanging out in Vancouver.” Finally, in his review for The Marble theatre blog—run by Theatre grad Matthew McLaren—Chad Jarvie-Laidlaw says, “The Valley leaves questions lingering when you leave the theatre: how do you heal someone? How do you protect? Do you have any right to do either for them? These questions themselves are left unanswered, but a promise is made: you can, and will, find an answer for yourself.”
While the psychotic breakdown of an 18-year-old university student on Vancouver’s SkyTrain may be the spark that ignites the play’s dramatic powder keg, the heart of The Valley is how two families—both the boy’s and the police officer’s—each battle depression. “There’s an assumption that it’s going to be about police brutality, but at the end of the day, this is a play about the ‘everydayness’ of mental illness. I didn’t want it to be an ‘us and them’ thing; I want people to look at the world in a different way.”
Much like policing, MacLeod acknowledges how the perception of mental health has changed over her lifetime—something she’s witnessed first-hand as a university professor. “This is about a first-year student who falls apart, and anyone who teaches post-secondary has had that experience. He’s not based on any specific student, but as a professor I’m aware of the pressure our students are under, their vulnerability.”
As a playwright, a big part of MacLeod’s research is ensuring the authenticity of her scenes. While writing The Valley, she consulted a police officer and a psychiatric nurse, as well as Andrew Solomon’s definitive 700-page study, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. “Based on the people who have seen the show, the mental health issues are portrayed pretty accurately,” she says. I’m proud of the fact that everyone in this play gets a fair shake—the police officer, his wife, the boy, his mother.”
Is there a trick to achieving that level of authenticity on stage? “That’s just what playwrights do,” she says. ”That’s our job—to get inside a character and make the audience feel that way.”
More than books or television, MacLeod feels the stage is the best place to bring these kinds of emotional issues to light. “Theatre is ideal for that. When it’s done right, you’re having a true emotional experience. And it makes for a very powerful combination when you base it on a real event.”
Joan MacLeod (far right) with director Roy Surette (right) and some of the creative team (UVic Photo Services)
Her plays—including Jewel, Toronto, Mississippi, Amigo’s Blue Guitar, The Hope Slide, Little Sister, The Shape of a Girl, Homechild and Another Home Invasion—have been translated into eight languages. She is currently writing her 11th play, Gracie. “It’s based in part on the polygamous community in Bountiful. I never know what I’m going to write. It’s almost like I have to trick myself into getting really interested in something.”
MacLeod has won every major Canadian playwriting prize, including the Governor General’s Award and the $100,000 Siminovitch Prize. “Joan is a master of expressing the profoundest human emotions, putting to paper the vulnerability, the compassion,
the weaknesses and strengths of the human spirit,” said the Siminovitch jury chair.
But when it comes to teaching playwriting, MacLeod says the trick is to find truth and common ground. “It comes down to a sense of veracity, of remaining true to your characters,” she says. “All I can teach students about is language and what good
dialogue is. It’s up to them to make it feel true.”
Listen to this interview with Joan MacLeod and On The Island host Gregor Craigie, taped live at the Belfry Theatre’s B4Play event on January 30. You can also read more about The Valley in this Times Colonist preview article from February 4.
The Valley runs Feb. 2–28 at Victoria’s Belfry Theatre. The Belfry will also be hosting a special UVic Alumni event on Feb. 7, where MacLeod—an alumna of UVic’s writing department—will speak after the show.