From an early age, Sara Adlerstein understood that her passion for art was not limited to painting.

“I was into so many things,” said Adlerstein, associate research scientist in the School for Environment and Sustainability. “Dancing, drawing, cooking, writing poetry. Anything about expressing and connecting.”

Similarly, her dual interests in the sciences and the arts are not bound to their seemingly opposite areas of study.

Her background in ecology began in Chile, where she received a degree in biology at the University of Concepcion. After completing a master’s degree and Ph.D. from the School of Fisheries and Oceanography at the University of Washington, she joined the faculty of the University of Hamburg. In 2001, accepted a position at U-M in and focused her research on Great Lakes aquatic ecosytems.

For Adlerstein, ecology and art are very much connected. She realized that navigating between these two disciplines revealed a possibility for using art as a tool for advancing change.

“I thought, I can bring the art here,” she said. “And this is going to play a role in communicating science in a different way.”

Photo of Sara Adlerstein
For Sara Adlerstein, associate research scientist in the School for Environment and Sustainability, her interests in science and art are very much connected. (Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography)

Adlerstein combines these worlds by advising a Rackham Interdisciplinary Student Workshop called ArtEco, which aims to use the creative arts to address environment and sustainability issues. Its members host video screenings, writing workshops and various other activities.

She also is the founder of the SEAS Art & Environment Gallery located in the Dana Building. It features works by artists whose work relates to the mission of the school.

Adlerstein incorporates activities with youth into the gallery space starting when hosting an exhibit commemorating the 100th year of the passenger pigeon’s extinction.

“That’s when I started thinking we can do something with kids here,” she said. “Kids need to understand they have a role to play in taking care of nature.”

On that occasion, she collaborated with the Great Lakes Zoological Society and organized a workshop for children to learn about bird conservation. ArtEco students created passenger pigeon 3-D models for children to decorate. The flock of more than 100 decorated pigeons was then hung next to the art exhibit.

Adlerstein’s goal was to get the students to consider how to take care of urban birds.

“That was the first time I had work by kids here and I thought, what a wonderful thing to do,” she said.

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Spurred by the experience, Adlerstein organized an art competition for students from Ann Arbor Public Schools. ArtEco members visited the classrooms, explained the basics of climate change and solicited images representing their commitments to being part of the solution. Awards were presented during a ceremony in the gallery, where selected pieces were displayed.

Adlerstein’s most recent initiative reached out to an all-girls U-M summer program organized by the Center for Educational Outreach. Sixty girls, ages 9-13, from Detroit schools, came to the gallery for a workshop on learning urban nature through art.

Currently, Adlerstein works with members from the School of Music Theatre & Dance, the Belle Isle Nature Center and the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences to create a series of workshops for DAAS students and a family-friendly performance focused on connections between the urban and natural environment. Through visual art, music and dance, middle school students will learn how their life is connected to Great Lakes ecosystems.

“What I am doing has an impact,” Adlerstein said. “I know it’s going to make a difference in their lives. That counts, more than anything else in my life right now.”


What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?

When I know that a class is more than an instructor and a group of students, but a community.

What can’t you live without?

Love, as I exist in my relationships with others. Creating, which is my secret weapon that keeps me grounded and whole. And music, which is my companion since I wake up.

Name your favorite spot on campus.

Other than my little office in Dana, the corner room at UMMA towards “The Diag” where the indoors and outdoors blend.

What inspires you?


What are you currently reading?

“The Relevance of the Beautiful and Others Essays,” by Hans-Georg Gadamer.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

My parents, who never tried to influence me, showed me by example to do my best and supported me without conditions.