Another Side of Science

So far in this organically growing series of exposés on the TREET project, I have covered two different perspectives, the early career scientist and the undergraduate researcher in training. I have now convinced two more invested souls to sit down with me and discuss their most fascinating theories and ideas. An expert scientist and an expert observer, who is also a scientist of the social kind. This piece is an observation on the observer.

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I have an affinity for observation, I like to think. It’s different from just watching, merely looking on, taking in the surroundings. Personally, I’m intrigued by the observer who formulates ideas, draws conclusions, and, anticipates discoveries. This is how I try to observe. Ethnographer Zara Mirmalek is an expert that carries observing to new heights, better yet, drags them to new depths.

I often read about photographers and filmmakers, a subject of study for most of my life. Expert observers and creators that cover humans, wildlife, and the environment. I try to learn how they observe their subjects within their own community. How they watch every detail. Moving an inch, oh that’s too much, a centimeter, composing the shot just right. Nice, nice, that’s it. Framing all that gives context within the viewfinder. Tilting the lens slightly down, denoting feeling in the image. Giving more weight to the subject or the periphery. All to pull a story out of a vast world of visuals. Whatever their specific technique, each is due to intense observational learning.

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Scientists inside mission control of the Inner Space Center look on as the remotely operated vehicle Hercules sucks up a sample using it’s manipulator arm. Photo by Zara Mirmalek

Ethnography is defined as the study of culture among communities that are held together by shared goals and particular approaches to make meaning. How they perceive and utilize their surroundings to go about their work. In the case presented here, Zara is observing and interacting with the TREET team. She is studying how telepresence and the Inner Space Center work with scientists ashore and at sea.

The habits, values, social norms, assumptions and language of the members to help make  sense of their activities, guide their behavior, and create relationships are the focal points of Ethnography. These also fall in line with the root thoughts of a professional photographer. However, when I first made the comparison of her work to a photographer’s, she mentioned a big difference, her role as a participating observer.

Photographer’s of the natural world usually stay away from extended participation with their subject. Strictly observing and allowing moments to happen. In Zara’s department, she employs her methods to identify values, recognize habits, decipher language, and learn habitual workarounds that inform the community how to do their work. Once she has identified these topics, she disseminates the information to the community in near real time. She doesn’t express opinions, describing when she thinks something is cool, rather, the information she delivers must directly benefit the community and their work.

Mirmalek does this to contribute to the development of a community, specifically the ones that rely on human and technological relationships. Her aim is to completely immerse within a community, leaving it better than when she entered.

A photographer needs tools to go about taking photos. They need equipment to observe their subject and capture pictures. Professional photographers, look for interesting subject matter to capture raw emotions and experiences of a subject to tell a story through the lens of a camera. The photographer observes the environment and the players in that environment. Using them to craft the images. Predicting movements of a subject. Utilizing the  surroundings for framing and visual storytelling. Listening to the interactions outside the field of view for the aid in  anticipating just the right moment to depress the ever patient, but realistically impatient, shutter release. Tools of the craft are a necessity. Zara uses her rare skill set, coupled with her intuition, as necessary tools. Physically she utilizes the true environment of the community in which she studies. Rather than involving an external tool bag, she will use what exists at that moment, in that environment to contribute. This way what she exhibits, employs, and, passes on will remain when she walks out of the door.

A lot of great photos are attributed to being in the right place at the right time. In my opinion, this leans too much on luck. The right place, right time idea is not always based in luck. Most of the time it’s the right combination of highly skilled, relentless observation, with patient anticipation, before action. Anyone can take a great photo by association to something unique, but a true photographer can do it repetitively. Hopefully, as a result, at the end of the project, attitudes are changed for the better and new perspectives unleashed. (Hoping this sounds familiar)

Zara Mirmalek has made it her mission in life to work like a professional photographer, in the relentless observational sense. Proving and testing her methods of study over and over. She records into text the interactions of actors within the community, including their language and gestures. She is open to anything happening. What her observations may tie together is not always apparent in the moment. Sometimes what is really  happening is not actually evident. The next step is to write, connect the dots, and, draw lines to bring the themes together. Then to dispense these to the players. In the case of the Inner Space Center, she follows the actors (or scientists), information, robots, and, data. Watching how they build examples, tie how they are looking for questions and how they arrive at their answers. All this information she collects puddles together and flows into the next day’s considerations.

The community absorbs information from within the community, simply by their natural interactions. At the same time they gather new targeted methods and procedures from Zara. Her work and her science is separate enough, whereas, she does not come from the same background as the community. Within the community, the experts enact their expertise, as she observes and uses methods of her own. The door is widely opened for different perspectives. With that said, the widely opened door, leaves opportunity for big changes to enter the room or the remote space. Added with Zara’s notes and input, the community actually begins to evolve from within. Imagine the benefits, the possibilities.

Zara’s research can greatly impact the way future scientists interact within their community. From pursuing research funding to publishing their  discoveries. This community needs Zara and people with like skills in observational participation. Up and coming scientists need to learn how to do what the big names in their respective fields do every year.

Zara is someone who doesn’t accept things the way they seem to be. She knows people can set out and accomplish great things within their surroundings. She knows how to help them achieve greatness in extremely challenging situations. She just gets it. Zara knows when to watch and when to act, if we all knew how to do that naturally then this world would be a better place. In the same thought, we would all be really good photographers too.

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