Lyon College art student receives STEM grant for caving photography

Earlier in January, Lyon College senior art student Nichole Cook, ‘19, applied for a STEM Minority grant from the Arkansas Space Grant Consortium (ASGC), and her proposal was granted.

Under the advisement of biology professor and Cavers of the Batesville Region of Arkansas (COBRA) Grotto president, Dr. David Thomas, Cook will document Thomas’s caving research team in local Ozark caves. In order to photograph in caves, Cook needed appropriate camera and lighting equipment, which the STEM Minority grant helped to provide.

“I never would have imagined applying for a NASA-related grant,” Cook explained in her proposal to the ASGC. “However, I now believe that my artistic perspective of caving appeals to NASA’s vision to ‘reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind.’ I hope to document cave life and the research my team is doing to expand our understanding of life not only on Earth, but throughout the cosmos.”

Person wearing protective clothing inspects a cave with a flashlight.
Photo by Dr. David Thomas

But how did an art and English double major develop an interest in speleology, the study and exploration of caves?

“I put off taking my lab science credit until the fall of my senior year, and landed myself in BIO 110 with Dr. Thomas,” said Cook. “He mentioned in class one day that beginners were welcome to come on an upcoming caving trip, and on a whim I decided to try it. When I first set foot in Coon Creek Cave, I was shocked at the beauty of the actinobacteria-coated walls and ceiling of the cave. The reflected light of my headlamp made them look like stars in a dark sky. I was hooked from that first cave, and every chance I got I went out with his speleology class.”

Thomas took note of Cook’s interest in caving and photography and encouraged her to apply for the grant.

“I knew that she had an interest in photography and was looking for something to do for her senior [art] project,” said Thomas. “I found out that there were student STEM Minority grants still available at the December ASGC meeting and suggested to Nichole that she should apply for one. The proposal was enthusiastically received by the ASGC board.”

When Cook and Thomas found out her proposal was granted, they said they were both pleased.

“I was very proud and satisfied that she received it,” said Thomas. “She spent a lot of effort on her proposal and application. Most of these grants go to students in STEM majors. She was able to tie in the art of photography to the sciences of speleology and astrobiology.”

Cook said, “Frankly, I was astonished that I actually got it. I was just really happy and extremely excited at the opportunity to further my skill and experience with these two things that I love and share it with both STEM and liberal arts audiences.”

Cook will also use her photography for her art senior thesis project, among her other interests.

“I’ve since used my caving experience in my poetry, art, and I am now excited to be working with Dr. Thomas and the research team and presenting at the STEM conference in April.”

Cook will present at ASGC’s annual symposium on April 19.