Climate science meets art | LGBTQ+ History Month


By Carissa Wong, PhD Cancer Immunology

Meet Dr Mika Tosca: the NASA climate researcher and LGBTQ+ activist bringing art to science.

Dr Mika Tosca is a remarkable scientist and transgender woman, who completed her PhD in Earth System Science at the University of California. She went on to work at NASA’s renowned Jet Propulsion Laboratory for six years, where she is still an affiliated Assistant Professor.

Mika completed her PhD thesis in evaluating the impact of fire aerosols on regional and global climate. Now, she dedicates her time to improving public engagement with the world’s climate crisis. After experiencing gender dysphoria and depression, Mika completed her transition from male to female in 2016.

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A year later, she decided to make the exciting move to the School of Art Institute in Chicago, where she brings an artsy approach to confronting the climate crisis. Despite mountains of evidence, segments of society still deny global warming is happening at all. We need to change the way the information is presented; the future of our planet depends on it.

Mika believes that artists offer a different way of thinking about the climate threat, a way that can help people engage more organically with cold, often boring scientific evidence. ‘There’s not a lot of human engagement as part of the scientific process…I wanted to think about new ways, or perhaps more effective ways’, she said, ‘of ultimately getting the general public to buy into the science but also the solutions to climate change.’

Mika’s lectures at the School of Art bring her knowledge of climate science to art students and help them to produce art pieces that can communicate different aspects of climate change to the public. For example, art pieces that can provoke the viewer to consider how climate change intersects with gender, class and access to resources.

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She also believes that an artistic perspective itself can improve the productivity of scientists by offering improved tools for conducting the research. Mika worked with a designer to redesign one of the software interfaces that scientists use to analyse wildfire data. 'We redesigned it to be more aesthetic and more interactive…it actually did facilitate better science and better communication of that science,' she explained.

In an online article published this past summer, Mika identifies an interesting parallel. 'Fifty years ago,' she writes, 'queer folks began a revolution that demanded we be respected as equals – both in life and in law – and that revolution has resulted in enormous progress for LGBT+ people everywhere.' Mika believes, and tells her students, that the current climate crisis 'offers another opportunity for us to be truly revolutionary.'

Dr Mika Tosca believes in the power of revolution driven by optimism. A revolution in our engagement with climate science can open the doors to widespread understanding, discussion and problem solving of the climate crisis. It is people like Mika who are invaluable to society: willing to push boundaries and bring others – with all their differences – together, so that our specialities can shine for the good of our common humanity.

Featured image: Epigram / Maegan Farrow

Who is your favourite LGBTQ+ figure in science and tech? Let us know!