Matt Cicanese ’12 Awarded National Geographic Young Explorer Grant

Apr 1, 2016

by Cary McMullen | Publications editor

Anyone who has seen the nature photos of Matt Cicanese ’12 might think that his work belonged in the pages of National Geographic magazine. Now, that may very well happen. 

Cicanese learned in March that he has been awarded a grant by the highly competitive National Geographic Young Explorer program, which allows scientists, journalists, photographers and conservationists ages 18 to 25 to pursue field projects they are passionate about. The results of the field studies often are displayed on the website of National Geographic and in the magazine.

Cicanese is passionate about lichens, the unusual organisms that combine characteristics of plant, fungi and bacterial life, and he will use his grant to partially fund a two-week expedition in August to the outer rim of Iceland, where he will photograph lichens and mosses.

“I love the wilderness, and Iceland is an ecologically fascinating place, with glacial fields and mountains,” Cicanese said. “There is a lot of rich information about lichens people have explored in traditional ways. I want to show the ecology of lichens in different ways.”

Cicanese began developing his talents as a photographer while still in his teens. A bout with meningitis when he was 11 left him deaf in his left ear and partially blind in his left eye, but as he puts it, “It didn’t stop me as a kid.” An uncle introduced him to photography.

“It was like a light bulb went on. I could document adventures in my backyard. The camera became an extension of myself,” he said.

Cicanese eventually got a more advanced camera and a macro lens, which magnifies the subject and allows for detailed photos of tiny objects. Even as a student at FSC, his personal website showed astonishingly beautiful photos of small parts of the natural world. Cicanese studied environmental science at FSC and did an internship at the famed lichenology laboratory at Duke University through the assistance of Professor of Biology Eric Kjellmark.

“Matt just loved science. He wasn’t interested in grades so much as learning. He’s a very thoughtful person and very self-motivated. He would bring in specimens on his own to examine and discuss with me,” Dr. Kjellmark said.

Cicanese considered pursuing a doctoral degree in biology, but instead he was accepted into the master of fine arts program at Duke, where he studied experimental and documentary photography. There he pioneered a new technique as applied to nature photography.

“I created essentially a Google Map of natural objects that I call GigaMicroBiomes,” he said.

Cicanese takes a highly detailed photo of an object, for example a piece of bark that has several kinds of lichens on it, and uses an application to create arrays that allows a viewer to zoom into any point in the photograph for a closer look, just the way a user can zoom in close on Google Maps to get more detail about a location. During a fellowship with the elite International League of Conservation Photographers, Cicanese showed off the technique and was told by experienced nature photographers they had never seen anything like it.

Cicanese will be creating a collection of GigaMicroBiomes during his expedition to Iceland. He anticipates it will be a two-week immersion in the parallel universe he enters while engaged in photography.

“I’m in a different state of mind when I’m looking through the viewfinder,” he said. “It’s a very visceral response.”

[See examples of Matt's work: on Instagram at @boyoftheforest and on Facebook at /matthewcicaneseofficial. His website is]