European Voices


Where science meets art

“My relationship with UCL is founded on the incredible teaching I benefited from, and the inspiring lecturers who led me deeper into research." – Dr Kat Austen, artist and lecturer

Kat by a river

10 June 2021

Dr Kat Austen (PhD Research Chemistry, 2006) works in the unique space where art, science and the environment meet. She carries out extensive research into the natural world, which she translates through her work as an artist, creating visionary installations, performances and participatory exhibitions to make us think deeper about our impact on the environment.

A true ‘European’, Kat splits the bulk of her time between her studio space in Berlin and London. But her work also takes her across mainland Europe and the world – from the Canadian High Arctic to Wroclaw, Poland for an EMAP / EMARE residency to the borders of Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic for her current This Land is Not Mine project. But for all her travels, there’s one place Kat really connects with. She says: “UCL feels like home, full of welcoming friendly faces!”

Kat received her doctorate in Research Chemistry from UCL in 2006, then became Artist in Residence at UCL’s Faculty of Maths and Physical Sciences, while also lecturing for the BASc Arts and Sciences programme. Kat says: “UCL has given me some fantastic opportunities, and I’ve encountered inspiring and fascinating people. I had a great time studying and had more adventures than I can count.”

As a child, Kat had no idea that a career like hers existed, but she’s always been driven to find ways to live more harmoniously with nature. Aged 17, she was introduced to UCL at the Chemistry Department’s open day. Although she met interesting prospective students and staff, it was when she went to explore Gordon Square that she knew UCL was the place for her.

“Nestled in this peaceful park in the centre of what is, let’s face it, one of the greatest cities in the world, I knew UCL was where I should be,” says Kat. “Intellectually, I also chose UCL because it was founded on Jeremy Bentham’s radical ideas, promoting an excellent education to demographics who were previously excluded on the grounds of religion, race, gender and wealth.”

Kat studied at UCL from 1997-2005, and holds two master's degrees and a PhD in Research Chemistry. Under the wing of inspirational mentors, she developed her field of research – and academic bonds which lasted long after graduation. “I met Hasok Chang who set up a History of Chemistry reading group that I continued to be part of after I had graduated. We even produced a book together - Theory Choice in the History of Chemical Practices,” says Kat. “I also remember Andrea Sella lecturing me in my first term at UCL, and all these years later we discuss DIY chemistry protocols when I drop by his office.”

Kat’s work is diverse but she finds that her research into the environment directs where her art will go. “They are not distinct from each other. My research and the artwork I produce are a method of making sense of the world,” she says. “Internally, I don’t draw a line between the production of what we call an artwork and research into a topic, although on the outside the forms may look very different.”

One of her proudest moments was performing her work The Matter of the Soul | Symphony at the COP24 climate summit in 2018. The one-hour musical performance and installation addressed the impact of the climate crisis on the people and ecosystem of the Arctic. She says: “It is so special to me because it was just after the IPCC released a crucial report, giving me the opportunity to share the symphony at a very important event for climate policy.”

Her current project This Land is Not Mine is exploring how the Lusatia region on the border of Germany and Poland is transforming itself from mining to more sustainable industry. Kat is researching how this manifests in the landscape and ecosystem, and part of the project involves an audio-visual installation at the Brandenburg Museum of Modern Art in Cottbus, a key city in the area. Kat is also currently hosting two European scientists at her studio for the STUDIOTOPIA programme – a European initiative that combines eight cultural institutions and their scientists to work alongside leading artists in a bid to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Kat’s work shifted to an online space, prompting her to focus even more on being present with the ecosystem directly around her in the light of emerging technologies. And she would urge others to do the same. She says: “We have to work together, work on ourselves and work with the more-than-human others to find new ways to be with each other.”

These thoughts also feed into her advice to current UCL students as everyone works out a new place in the world. “In these times that are full of pressures and uncertainty, pay attention to your senses and sensations,” she says. “Take time for others, for your friends and for UCL staff members you interact with.

“Connect about ideas as well as challenges, and use the time to understand where your current path lies, and look out for any moments of joy that lie within your reach.”