A Very Visual Scientist

Credit: Louise Allen, Salem College

The Center for Design Innovation (CDI) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, looks more like a design studio than an academic research lab. Nickolay "Nick" Hristov, who studies bats and specializes in motion-capture technology, is CDI's first design researcher. He is also a tenure-track professor in life sciences at Winston-Salem State University (WSSU), a historically black college located 3 kilometers from CDI.

"If we go on the notion that an image is worth a thousand words, I really understood that many images are worth many thousands of words." -- Nickolay Hristov

At CDI, the work is varied: there's Hristov's research on bats, there's physical and occupational therapy research, and there's even a project that encourages cycling. All CDI projects include some mix of teaching, research, and engagement with the local community, and Hristov is involved with most of them. "It's difficult to respond and be engaged in all these different elements and to maintain the quality of your own independent work," Hristov says. But with these challenges come rewards: specifically, the opportunity to marry his scientific research and his lifelong interest in photography and imaging technology in a single, joint academic appointment. It wasn't a position that he could have prepared for, he says, but when the opportunity appeared, "I saw that it was what I'd been dreaming of all along."

Pointing a camera at nature

Nick Hristov (Credit: Richard Phillips, Center for Design Innovation)

Hristov spent much of his childhood in a small city in Bulgaria in the Rhodope Mountains near the Balkan peninsula. His geologist parents conducted research in the area. Books by Joy Adamson and the British naturalist Gerald Durrell fed Nick's interest in animals.

His mother nursed a passion for photography; a prized family possession was a Russian Zenit SLR camera she'd purchased as a college student by selling a winter coat. At 8 years old, Nick was fascinated with the camera, which was kept hidden. But it was years before he got his mother's permission to use it and persuaded a family friend, a photographer, to give him a roll of film.

Nick headed to the zoo and quickly used up the 36 exposures. When the photographer friend helped him develop the photos, he scolded Hristov because no people were in the pictures. To the photographer, Nick had wasted the film. A nature photographer was born.

Hristov finished school as the Soviet bloc was crumbling. In 1992, he seized the opportunity to pursue a university education in the United States. As an undergraduate at the University of Maine, Orono, he studied zoology while continuing to pursue photography.

A move to bats

Hristov considered going to veterinary school, but soon he realized that he was more interested in exploring animal behavior. At first, he hoped to head to Africa to study large cats. When that didn't work out, his academic adviser suggested he work on a project based at Acadia National Park on nearby Mount Desert Island, studying the habitat use and foraging behavior of bats.

At first, bat research seemed to be a mismatch for his interests. Compelled by the visual, he couldn't imagine studying an animal that came out mainly in the dark. "It's one of the ironies of the naïve researcher I was," he says. But soon he realized what an incredible model bats are. Bats fascinated him, and so did the challenge of finding new and creative ways to visualize and understand their behavior.

While finishing his undergraduate education, he put his near-professional photographic skills to work chronicling a paleoecology project conducted by a University of Maine researcher on the island of Dominica in the Lesser Antilles, with funding from the National Geographic Society. The experience -- and the collaboration with editors at National Geographic -- refined his eye and his visual approach, he says, and at that point he could have moved toward a career as a professional photographer. But "I decided that I didn't see myself as an independent artist," he says. He decided to pursue research as his primary work and to fuel his artistic interests with scientific discovery.

Hristov moved on to graduate school at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, seeking new perspectives and techniques for visualizing and understanding bat behavior. At Wake Forest, he used ultrasonic acoustics and the first generation of high-speed video cameras to capture bats hunting their moth prey in the laboratory. As high-definition imaging became more accessible, he became interested in three-dimensional (3D) computer graphics, realizing that he could harness his photographic skills even further to illustrate the science. "If we go on the notion that an image is worth a thousand words, I really understood that many images are worth many thousands of words," he says.

Hristov then did a postdoc with Thomas Kunz at Boston University using thermal imaging and 3D visualization to study bat behavior in the Texas Hill Country and to get a more accurate census of the Brazilian free-tailed bat population at Carlsbad Cavern in New Mexico. In a second postdoc, he studied the biomechanics of bat flight with Sharon Swartz and Kenneth Breuer at Brown University.

"Nick is very, very energetic. He has a very creative mind. He's very capable as a scientist," Kunz says. Although he wasn't trained as a computer scientist, Hristov quickly learned the algorithms used by their computer scientist collaborators to process and calculate the imaging data for many thousands of bats. "Nick was a great bridge between biology and computer scientists, and that made it possible to do the kind of work that we did," Kunz adds.

An experimental position

As Hristov did his postdoctoral research in New England, a consortium of schools was coming together in Winston-Salem to form CDI. Founded in 2006, CDI involves three state institutions -- WSSU, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, and Forsyth Technical Community College -- and two private institutions: Wake Forest University and Salem College. It provides an interdisciplinary academic setting and works closely with the local community and business leaders to develop new ideas and business ventures.

Credit: Scott Betz, Winston-Salem State University
Hristov in the motion-capture studio with two first-year students, Akeadra Bell and Apu Seyenkulo, both exercise science majors at Winston-Salem State University. Bell and Seyenkulo were participants in the scientific visualization Liberal Learning Seminar in the fall semester, 2010.

For its first faculty member, CDI sought an expert in motion-capture technology. "We were looking for something very specific," someone with motion-capture expertise, says CDI's Director Carol Strohecker, "but we cast the net very broadly." The appropriate researcher, she says, could have come from computer science, physics, physical therapy, or even the fine arts. Hristov's field experience, experience with a range of technologies, presentation skills, and interest in working in a wide range of research areas led to his selection, she says.

As the first faculty member in a new center, Hristov is charting a new course in his tenure process. He is expected to satisfy the tenure requirements of the life sciences department at WSSU while meeting the expectations of his CDI colleagues. This is a source of some uncertainty, Hristov admits, but his colleagues have been supportive. In his second full year on the job, he's is working hard to balance teaching, research, and service while engaging the diverse array of collaborative projects at CDI and partner institutions.

Most faculty members at WSSU teach three to four courses per semester. To accommodate his joint appointment (and higher research expectations), Hristov's teaching load is smaller. Still, teaching is a very important part of his professional mix, and there's less of a distinction between teaching and research than in most academic posts. Since his arrival in 2009, Hristov has experimented not just in science but also with interdisciplinary teaching.

For example, Hristov and Scott Betz, a WSSU professor of fine arts, have developed a scientific visualization course that brings together students from biology, computer science, and studio art, exposing them to scientific data and strategies for presenting that data in attractive and meaningful ways. Students in the class use data from CDI research projects. Some of that data comes from Hristov's bat research. Some comes from another of his collaborations, with Glenna Batson, a WSSU physical therapy colleague who is studying dance as a rehabilitation therapy for patients with Parkinson's disease. Some comes from a community-based project that's trying to improve opportunities for cycling in Winston-Salem. Courses are taught in the style of studio art courses: Students stand up and talk about how they approach a problem, and projects are discussed and critiqued by everyone. This blending of teaching and research is a defining attribute of Hristov's research. "For me, there is absolutely no separation, there is no line," he says. "To me, research in general is about learning."

In the summers, Hristov continues his fieldwork on bats, hauling expensive cameras and mobile lab equipment to sites in Texas and New Mexico for 2 months each summer. During the school year, although he doesn't have an office at WSSU, he's frequently in the department as a guest lecturer for animal behavior courses or to work with his life sciences colleagues on grant proposals and teaching projects.

One challenge he faces is the lack of graduate students. He carries out his research with undergraduates -- who don't stick around very long after starting a research project -- and collaborators from other institutions.

Although his techniques are modern and his position unusual, Hristov's scientific perspective is traditional; he describes himself as "a modern-day naturalist." Although he might not have the stereotypical white beard or the pencil and notepad, "the incentive is still the same," he says. "We just use fancy cameras and our notepads are computer screens and touchscreens."

Sarah Webb writes about science, health, and technology from Brooklyn, New York.

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