Reading the Rivers and Making Them Sing

September 13, 2023
River with music overlayed

A University of Virginia professor is using a grant to explore the intersection between art and science. (Illustration by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

Ajay Limaye knows that science and the arts go together better than some people would expect. In fact, the University of Virginia professor of environmental science is convinced that creativity is an important part of any scientific project.

Limaye’s research, which focuses on how rivers shape the communities that form around them, won him the 2023 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation. He’ll use the more than $500,000 grant that comes with the award to fund student research. The grant also allows him to work with the School of Education and Human Development, and the music department, to show how rivers affect our lives and demonstrate the intersections between art and science.

An amateur musician, Limaye has partnered with Emmy-award winning composer and UVA professor of music Matthew Burtner, who explores ways to immerse listeners in interactive relationships with the environment through music. The two are collaborating to develop musical representations of rivers and are planning a public performance that they hope will engage listeners with science in new ways and bring new perspectives to the work.

94% On-Time Graduation Rate Pleases 100% of Parents, to be great and good in all we do
94% On-Time Graduation Rate Pleases 100% of Parents, to be great and good in all we do

“Landscapes are where people encounter science,” Limaye said. “I think the health and success of our field relies on remaining in communication with all of the communities that have an interest in defining what our science is and what it means.”

Limaye is also working with UVA associate professor of education Jennifer Chiu to understand the significance of combined scientific and artistic ventures, exploring how audiences respond and what they take away from the experience. That approach can help people understand and interact with science in a new way.

“People rarely see examples that science is a creative endeavor,” Chiu said. “Limaye’s work to sonify river features can not only help people see how science can be creative but also help to engage people in science by providing different and novel representations of concepts.”

UVA provides ample opportunities to explore interdisciplinary work.

“We have the best of all worlds at UVA where we have leading thinkers in science and the humanities, and to do the best science we can, we need to be able to draw on the full range of human knowledge,” Limaye said. “This project will enable us take a bold step toward bridging the scientific and artistic disciplines and connecting communities.”

In Limaye’s case, Howard Epstein, chair of the Department of Environmental Sciences said the terms “ground-breaking” and “cutting-edge” can be taken literally. 

Portrait of Ajay Limaye
Assistant professor of environmental science Ajay Limaye’s research demonstrates the importance of rivers in shaping communities. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

“Because that’s exactly what rivers do to shape the landscapes through which they run,” Epstein said.

“In addition to understanding the root causes of these processes and the influence of climate change on rivers, Ajay brings a great deal of creativity to his approaches for expressing and communicating his science to others.”

Rivers are of particular interest to Limaye because they are fundamental to where and how people can live.

“Rivers play a central role in the evolution of landscapes,” he said. “They carve canyons; they build wide, impressive flood plains that have downstream consequences for agriculture but also for flooding and erosion… I like to think of rivers as threads through time that connect the past, the present and the future of the planet.”

Media Contact

Russ Bahorsky

Writer UVA College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences