BIOTA: Symbiosis in Action

Saban Ul-Hasan, graduate student at University of California Merced, shares her passion for inspiring understanding of symbiotic relationships between scientists, artists, the public and the environment. Sabah promotes these relationships through production of the educational video series “BIOTA”, which highlights specific ecosystems and features music of local bands and work of local artists.


Sabah Ul-Hasan:


Thank you. Thanks. I just also want to echo my gratitude as everyone else has echoed, for having me be here as a representative of my team and project BIOTA. I want to start this talk with two questions for the audience to ask themselves. Going the streamline of these discussions we've been having, first question is, when you were growing up, were you feeling proud of that place that you grew up? Maybe now you feel proud of it, but when you were growing up, did you really feel a sense of ownership of the place where you grew up?


The second question I want to ask is, have you ever been discouraged by someone or something when trying to pursue your passion? That's where this project is based or how this project came about. I want you to consider and think about these questions as I'm going through this talk.


A little bit about me, just very briefly. Thanks for the introduction. My name is Sabah, I'm a graduate student at UC Merced. If you have any trouble remembering my name throughout this time, just think of Subway sandwiches. You can just call me Subway if you forget what my actual name is; that's totally fine.


But I just want to say that the answer to these questions for me, and also for my co-brain creator of this project, J. Abubo, who's a filmmaker based in Salt Lake City, was no, that we were discouraged and that we also did not have this sense of pride in the place where we grew up. We're both from Salt Lake City, Utah; we met in 2011. Incidentally, we discovered that we grew up in the same location on the other side of the highway near the factory plant on the smelly side of Great Salt Lake.


We're both women of color and we were both very interested in our passions. Growing up, I was very interested and curious in science, she was very interested in film; but we didn't have these types of resources. We were noticing this, going through time, going through high school, starting to go into college, being the first people navigating college in our families. We started make these observations that we didn't have the same resources that some of our peers, as we were excelling, did have.


This was something that we felt very fortunate to be in these positions now. I'm here talking to you today, which is a great privilege, but we also realized that this is very lucky out of the demographic that we're coming from. How do we dissolve that luck and make it more equitable, create that equity? That's something we really wanted to focus on.


We wanted a theme around symbiosis, symbiotic relationships. My research is actually on host/microbe interactions. We were very interested by symbiotic relationships. In a scientific sense, we're both philosophy nerds, junkies in a sense. We really wanted to have this application of symbiosis, specifically mutual symbiosis, where you have two species interacting in a way that helps each other, and apply that to these barriers we were seeing: socio-economically and socio-educationally, with ourselves growing up and with some of these peers that we had.


We decided to just get together in 2013. We just basically called up our friends: 'We have this crazy idea. Do you want to do it?' They said, "Yeah." This is our first Google Hangout together. We're talking about things. You can see the progression of our hairstyles throughout.


In 2013 we decided to start with a promo on the Great Salt Lake. Again, we both grew up next to the Great Salt Lake. It's very smelly. When it rains, it's even worse. There's flies everywhere, it's actually the second saltiest body of water next to the Dead Sea. But it's very underrated.


There's all these very fascinating things about the Great Salt Lake that people take for granted because of the smell, because it's undesirable. If you ask a lot of people who grew up in Salt Lake, they will tell you, 'Yeah, so what?' It's an important water fowl pit stop, among other things, a lot of scientists are interested in the microbial communities in the Great Salt Lake.


Bottom line is, we wanted to start with Great Salt Lake because it was personal to us, and also we wanted to create the sense of empowerment in the communities we were growing up in. Not just in terms of just general empowerment but also taking ownership of ecosystems that are surrounding us. We were very fortunate to get funded about two thousand dollars from various donors through Kickstarter. That's helped us get this going. Very fortunate for that.


If you go to YouTube and you type in BIOTA TV, you can find our channel. You'll find our first episode, you'll find some BIOTA vlogs of our team members. Our first episode is focused on the central valley of California. This is for two reasons. One reason is because it was a little bit convenient in terms of film-wise. I'm based at UC Merced. The second more important reason is that California, one every eight people lives in California in the United States. We thought this was a good place to start. Incidentally, there are 10 bio-regions in California, so that can transfer to 10 episodes.


We wanted to start with the San Joaquin Valley because if you ask a lot of Californians ... some of them are in the audience ... Central Valley is a neglected area of California. People don't think it's a cool place. People like San Francisco, they like LA; they think Merced, they're like, 'It's there.' But a lot of our food comes from Central Valley. We wanted to give people from the Central Valley a sense of empowerment for the places they were from, like we wanted to give ourselves and our peers from Great Salt Lake a sense of empowerment in the Great Salt Lake.


This is a picture of the Vernal Pools. It's very beautiful. This is literally a 10 minute walk away from me. You can see the mountains, the back of the Rockies there. We just asked people around Merced if they knew what Vernal Pools were, if they knew about the science going on with Vernal Pools, that this was a very valuable and important ecosystem in San Joaquin Valley.


These are some of the different symbiotic relationships created by one of our artists, Brian Shrimp, or one of them ... of the Vernal Pool flowers, interactions between ground squirrel and owl. Here's a sticker artwork from one of our artists between burrowing owl and a ground squirrel.


We really bridged not just scientifically, but we really wanted to bridge this mutual connection with the community through art as well. This picture here you see with the three panels of BIOTA; that's actually the album cover for our first episode.


There are eight different bands all from Central Valley, so they contributed to this. They were like, 'We don't really know what this is, but you were saying that you're going to give us a dollar for every album that someone buys, so yeah, sure, we'll do it.' The next thing you know, they watch the episode, they're like, 'Whoa, that's really cool.' So we're really trying to directly engage people in this work, not just connected science and art but really in real time trying to show change.


Same with these stickers, we have people that we just bring on board. We say, 'Hey, you want to make a sticker? It's just for this fun thing. We're going to help you out too. Mutual interaction.' They say, 'Yeah, sure.' And they're like, 'Oh, that's kind of cool. I didn't know that about Vernal Pools, and I'm from Central Valley.' So that's the goal. And empower them to then instill and bring things about in their own communities.


Our direction is, we're aiming to be a non-profit by the end of this year. We really want to make science accessible, but also bring a high level of quality. We're not interested in watering anything down. We really feel strongly about that. That's why we have this focus of really getting the community involved in these discussions and keeping that level of quality. We're not trying to talk down to people; we're trying to talk with people.


Our second episode is The Sierra Nevada Fire Regimes. This is the August 2013 Rim Fire two hours away from Merced. That episode we aim to have released by the end of this year if not by the beginning of this upcoming year. Again, really trying to connect communities with science, these mutual relationships.


Here's an example of a parasitic relationship with the cow bird. We really want to transform our understanding of an us versus them, an other-ing, people living with ecosystems and that ecosystems are just there, like the Great Salt Lake is just there. We want to transform this from being parasitic where we're using all these resources, to mutualistic, where we can benefit from the resources, and vice versa.


I really can't be here today without giving credit to everyone who has been involved. I am just representing the team; this award is really for our team. We are three sectors: Art and Film, led by Alondra and Lisa; Research, led by myself, and Marketing, led by Maleeha.


I really just want to emphasize that our passion, our love for this project is also in real time reflected with the diversity of our team. We really feel strongly about reaching these audiences and giving them something that they can own, while also representing that and practicing that. We want to practice what you preach.


I have to say, not just because of we're different cultural backgrounds or different genders or different religions; we're also with diversity physically, aesthetically, you also have different diverse mindsets. That, I think, has made our project so strong and so successful and has allowed us to get so much more done than I personally thought was possible.


I just want to emphasize, this is an animation from our promotional video, starting with the world and going into the microbial community in the Great Salt Lake. But I really want to emphasize here that why we're able to exist and going back to these three missions of NEB, is because we really do believe in this transforming and applying these symbiotic relationships of mutual-ism in practice as a team, as well as between the scientific community and the general public.


Again, going back to these two questions of really giving people a sense of empowerment that they can do it right. Just you yourself can do whatever you put your mind to. If you're passionate about it, you can do it.


The second question being, giving somebody a sense of place. Not just with these documentary series you'll see some place very exotic, far away, and that's amazing; but also giving them a sense of place and the places that they've grown up or that they are there, and giving back to those communities too. Those all right the two things that I want to end with, and hopefully get something nice that you guys took away from it.

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