*Meet the moderators* Live chat with Greta Santagata from NSG

Hello and welcome to our latest live chat summary – the second in our ‘meet the moderators’ week. This time we’re talking to Greta Santagata, who is not only one of our lovely admins, but also a wildlife filmmaker and photographer, science communicator and former neuroscientist. She’s done an amazing range of work, so read on to find out more…

First, let’s ask Greta to introduce herself and her work…

Eurasian bee-eater with a pray in its beak, photographes in Italy (image from Greta Santagata)

Eurasian bee-eater with a bee (of course!) in its beak (image by Greta Santagata)

Greta:  My background is really a mix of several things. I studied fine arts with a specialism in painting and illustration for five years in Italy, then I moved to the UK and studied Neuroscience up to Masters level. Then I worked in research for one and a half years, where I was studying how rats use their whiskers to explore their surroundings. Then from pure science I moved to science communication and slowly (I’ll skip a few things here) I ended up getting more and more interested in ecology and conservation and the use of film/photography to communicate issue regarding the conservation of our natural environment and our place within it. So finally last year I started my own company and I’ve been making films about these topics ever since. As well as filming animals and being quite obsessed with birds, I am also still very interested in biomedical sciences and science communication (hence why I’m here at Nappy Science Gang). So on the side of the filming business I am working wherever I can in the science communication field and I have just (last week!) received the news that my latest idea has been funded by the Wellcome Trust (same people who fund NSG and many other great projects). So soon I’ll be working together with a game designer to make an interacting street game about science and the many ways in which we can interpret data, which will run for the first time at the Manchester Science Festival.

Fine art to neuroscience is an impressive jump to make! What made you decide to do it?
Greta: I always loved science, since I was 5 I knew I would be a biologist one day. So when I became a little older I thought, if I don’t study art now I’ll never be able to do it because then I’ll have a career as a biologist! It was crazy difficult. I didn’t even know the most basic of inorganic chemistry when I started in year 1, so I pretty much spent the first year of university JUST studying. I had this renaissance idea of knowledge that is neither art or science, but a mix of the two. I still believe it would be wonderful if people could study, practice and learn both disciplines at the same time, because they are really much more closely related than people think, but unfortunately today’s world isn’t structured like that.

What about your research on the way rats use their whiskers to explore? That sounds really interesting!
Greta: The reason why people study rats’ whiskers is because they are very sensitive tools that can detect the finest grooves and textures on surfaces, even better than our fingertips. They are basically studied as a model of our somatosensory system (our sense of touch). Rats can’t see very well, so they rely heavily on their whiskers, a bit like blind people, and by “touching” their environment they create a map of the place in their brains. You might have seen if you ever observed one, how rats and mice constantly move their whiskers? They vibrate all the time and if you look at them in slow motion they are actually moving making figures of 8, so fast that you can’t notice if you just look at them. They are ‘whisking’ when they do that, or probing their environment, like the blind person does with the stick.

How did you become interested in nappies?
Greta: I was already very interested in citizen science projects, like the ones involving bird/butterfly counts and the stargazing ones, so I really liked the concept of getting people who are not scientists involved with science this way. When I read about Sophia’s project I was particularly intrigued by the fact that you guys are doing ALL the science. You’re not just told to do x and y, but you have to GET TO x and y, design the experiments and really understand the scientific process. I was sold then. Nappies, since I don’t have children, are just the vessel for me. I also knew people who used them and from an environmental point of view I really supported them.

But I feel like I’ve joined your cause now and every time I meet parents I end up talking about nappies (to their surprise as it doesn’t happen everyday to meet people who don’t have children and know so much about nappies!).

Do you feel like you’ve gained some practical knowledge through working on the project anyway, even though you don’t use cloth nappies?
Greta:  Absolutely and I was quite obsessed with washing already to be totally honest. I’ve been experimenting with different techniques for a few years, I have bottles at home with different dilutions of bleach (I won’t say anymore!) so you know, I have the personality.  I take my white clothes back to Italy every summer to bring them back to a true white after a year of musty Manchester dampness. I am a great advocate of the power of the sun on clothes.

Do you think if you ever have kids, you’ll use cloth nappies?
Greta: No doubt I will! It seems so much more logical in many ways. And actually before I learnt about the existence of cloth nappies (which was probably just a couple of years ago) that was one thing that really bugged me about the thought of having children: the tons and tons of waste they produce (how materialistic of me, I’m sorry).

Do you have any ideas for how we can present our findings to the cloth nappy community and more widely to all parents?
Greta: Great question and one that we should all think about now. So, obviously I do believe in the great power of films and social media, so I think short, fun, interesting video clips would be a great way. They could circulate through Facebook but also be sent through mailing lists of nappy groups. However, you might know better than me what main channels the cloth nappy community uses. The problem with online and social media is that the information gets to you only if you are already looking for it. The real challenge is reaching out to “all the others”. That’s where leaflets can be helpful, but also wasteful and expensive.

You said there are a lot of wildlife-related citizen science projects where citizens are data collectors. Do you think there’s scope for more projects like this one where ‘citizens’ are more involved?
Greta: Definitely there is more scope for citizen science projects! I think they are flourishing at the moment and I keep seeing more and more. Just yesterday I was reading about a lottery funded citizen science project about marine conservation that will start next year with a budget of £1.7 million!

Do you think there would be the possibility of extending this project further? The more research that you do, the more you realise there is to learn.
Greta: I think that depends also on how successful this one turns out to be at the end. If we manage to recruit enough people for experiments, get some good reliable data, attend a number of science festivals/events, then perhaps we could convince people this is a really worthwhile project!

Thank you to Greta for such an interesting and diverse chat! We’re lucky to have someone with such a breadth of experience on the team.

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