LASER talk to spotlight research on pumas, filmmaking, river people, and ancient DNA

Christopher Wilmers
Dee Hibbert-Jones
Beth Shapiro
Wes Modes

UC Santa Cruz’s Institute of the Arts and Sciences will present its first “LASER” talk of 2016 on Tuesday, February 2, on campus at the Digital Arts Research Center.

Leonardo Art/Science Evening Rendezvous (LASER) is a national program of evening gatherings that bring artists, scientists, and scholars together for informal presentations and conversations.

The goal of the series is to feature compelling new developments in the arts and sciences, and to attract audiences that would not normally be found at the same gathering.

The February 2 event will include presentations by four UC Santa Cruz faculty—Wes Modes (“A Secret History of American River People”), Christopher Wilmers (“Who Knew There Was a Puma In My Backyard!”), Beth Shapiro (“How to Clone a Mammoth”), and Dee Hibbert-Jones, with collaborator Nomi Talisman (“Making Last Day of Freedom”).

Wes Modes holds an M.F.A. from the Digital Arts and New Media program at UC Santa Cruz and is now a lecturer in the Art Department.

Over the last few summers, inspired by historical accounts of shantyboaters on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, he set out on a series of journeys to record the lost histories of river communities.

The goal of his project, “A Secret History of American River People,” is to build a collection of personal stories of people who live and work on the river.

“Secret History is the culmination of my dream to build a replica of an early 20th century shantyboat from scratch and float down the Mississippi River, listening to the stories of river people,” said Modes. “It is an attempt to step into the river of history.”

To date, he has recorded more than 50 oral history-style interviews, each lasting from one to three hours.

“I’ve tried to know the Mississippi through listening,” Modes explained. “And in listening I’ve gathered a strange assortment of river wisdom. I heard from scientists, homeless people living under bridges, merchants, bar owners, river rats, artists, researchers, fishermen, boaters, and people who’ve lived within sight of the river every day of their lives.”

“In my months on the river, I feel like I’ve gotten a taste of river life,” Modes added, “but am humbled by the knowledge of the people I’ve met who’ve lived on the river for six, seven, eight, or more decades.”

Christopher Wilmers is a wildlife ecologist who studies how global change influences animal behavior, population dynamics  and community organization. An associate professor of environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz, he is the founder and lead researcher for the Santa Cruz Puma Project.

Since 2008, Wilmers and his team of researchers have fitted mountain lions in Northern California with specially designed collars utilizing radio telecommunications, global positioning, and an accelerometer device to record a variety of activities--from pouncing to mating.

Beth Shapiro is an evolutionary biologist who specializes in the genetics of ice age animals and plants in order to help develop strategies for the conservation of species that are threatened by climate change. A pioneer in a relatively new field called “ancient DNA,” Shapiro is an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz.

She has been named a Royal Society University Research Fellow, Searle Scholar, Packard Fellow, and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. In 2009, Shapiro received a MacArthur “genius” award. Her recent book is How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-extinction.

Dee Hibbert-Jones & Nomi Talisman just received an Academy Award nomination for their 32-minute documentary short, Last Day of Freedom. They collaborate on art, film, and interactive projects that look at the way power structures and politics impact everyday lives.

Hibbert-Jones is an associate professor of art & new media at UC Santa Cruz; Talisman is a freelance editor and animator.

Over the past year, Last Day Of Freedom, has won multiple awards, including the International Documentary Association’s Best Short Film of 2015; Best Short Film at the Full Frame Documentary Festival; and the Filmmaker Award from the Center for Documentary Studies.

The LASER presentations begin at 7 p.m. in the Digital Arts Research Center building (DARC--Room 108). Admission is free and open to the public.

For more information, contact the Institute of the Arts and Sciences at

The Institute of the Arts and Sciences is one of the priority initiatives of UC Santa Cruz’s comprehensive fundraising campaign.

The Campaign for UC Santa Cruz supports excellence across the university through increased private investment in the people and ideas shaping the future. It is bringing critical new resources to each academic division, and to signature initiatives in the Student Experience, Genomics and Health, Coastal Sustainability, the Institute of the Arts and Sciences, and Data Science Leadership.