Guest Blog: Use Art (yes, art!) to Enhance Your Science

In great anticipation of the Broaden Your Impact symposium, I wanted to share some of my experiences and thoughts for sharing your science from what many of you might consider the dominion of “that other half of my brain”. I use art to communicate science, because art can be a very compelling and often tangible way to communicate science to a broad audience. The visual nature of most art forms can help to engage people with science in new, exciting and perhaps even (gasp!) non-quantitative ways. In many instances, artwork can help to visualize abstract concepts in science. In others, art can be a vehicle for cultivating science appreciation and the beauty of the natural world. Science art can also tackle questions of scientific ethics, environmental justice, the ideas of “progress” and “innovation” and the role and perception of science in popular culture. Combining art with science can help to make science (and scientists) less intimidating and more accessible. Art can also help to capture the wonder, excitement and emotions of scientific discovery in ways that traditional means of science communication (scientific papers, pop science articles and even data visualizations) often cannot.

Cactus Moth Caterpillar © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Artist Emily Bryant uses pressed invasive plant material – gathered from parks – to create intricate collages depicting invasive insect species. Her work provides an environmental service (removal of invasive plants) with environmental and entomological education (about the invasive insects).

 I started out combining art and science (as a science outreach tool, anyway) on the biocreativity blog – exploring the interrelationships between art and the biological sciences.  Science blogging can – of course – be a really great way to share your science with the world. The biocreativity blog showcases some really great and diverse science artists and arts projects that have helped to engage very diverse audiences in the sciences. Unfortunately, scientists are rarely encouraged or rewarded in the workplace for pursuing creative endeavors, which are often viewed by departments or colleagues as being tangential hobbies that might distract from – rather than enhance – basic research and teaching responsibilities (though, of course, this is not always the case). My interactions with artists and scientists on the biocreativity blog inspired me to start Art.Science.Gallery. – an art gallery and science communication space in Austin, Texas. Our missions are to support the endeavors of emerging and established science artists, engage people from all backgrounds in the sciences through the visual arts, and help scientists to become better communicators of their work by offering professinal development workshops and classes.

Art-science collaborations are more than just a great way to help communicate science – they can also help make us better scientists! Psychology and neuroscience research has shown using “both sides of your brain” can enhance cognitive performance, the ability to creatively solve problems, increase productivity and innovative thinking. Let me give you a great example. Charity Hall is an artist, metalsmith and jewelry designer who I interviewed for the biocreativity blog’s ECO Art + Science Series last year creates works that include botanical and entomological imagery. Her art-science collaborations with her husband and entomologist Paul Marek helped to advance both his science and her art! Paul was studying the adaptive significance of bioluminescence in Moytoxia millipedes, and designed an experiment in which they would place hundreds of clay model millipedes into the forest floor: half glowing and half non-glowing, to see what happened. Using her sculptural skills, Charity created the models using casting molds, half of which were painted with a high-quality glow substance procured by Paul. Subsequently Charity began integrating the glow substance that Paul used for his millipedes in her jewelry! To quote from that article:

the clay millipedes were used to help discover why Moytoxia millipedes glow in the dark! Half were painted with glow-in-the dark paint, half were not, then they were left in the forest overnight. About half as many glow-in-the-dark models showed evidence of attacks by predators (mainly rodents) as the unpainted ones, leading researchers to conclude that bioluminescence in this species lends protection from predators!

Paul Marek made hundreds of clay millipede models for a research project examining the function of bioluminescence in millipedes using a bronze cast of a millipede made by Charity Hall. Image © 2011 by Paul Marek.

Lumenorbis. Images © 2011 Charity Hall. The background of this piece glows in the dark, using the same glow substance from Paul Marek’s millipede experiment.

 You can read the full article featuring Charity Hall and her work here.

 So, maybe some of this sounds interesting, but you’re afraid you haven’t an artistic bone in your body. Here are some practical ideas for how to get started…

1. Partner up with an artist, illustrator or graphic designer to help you visualize what you want to communicate. This can be great fun for both parties, and can even lead to collaborations on research projects and experimental design (see Charity Hall example, above).  Write this into your grant budgets: hire illustrator/artist to create scientific figures and outreach materials. Some of you may even have graphics departments at your university or organization to help with this.

Here is an example from my own dissertation. I had the challenge of translating a very large array of correlational data into a biologically relevant visual explanation of how environmental parameters like spring flow, water temperature and rainfall might affect population size of an endangered salamander. I sketched out a prototype or idea that my aunt (artist Victoria Harrell) helped develop into a figure that shows the possible indirect effects of these parameters on salamander habitat.

2. Start an interdisciplinary meetup (a.k.a. a salon). Invite scientists and artists you know to get together informally to discuss art and science topics. Historically, salons like this have been the cultural melting pots that have spurred some great innovations in science and cultural perception of science (for more on this I highly recommend neuroscientist Eric Kandel’s recent book Age of Insight). You might start by just getting together for happy hour to see where the conversation takes you, or you can get more formal by assigning a reading or a discussion topic or take turns giving short lectures. For example, the Nature and Inquiry artists group in Boston was started as an informal group of artists who appreciate science and integrate it into their work. You might be surprised where this type of interaction takes your own scientific thinking!

Danaë by Gustav Klimt, 1907. 77cm x 83 cm, Galerie Würthle, Vienna, Austria. This painting features Klimt’s interpretation of embryos in the lower right of the painting, inspired by attendance at art historian Berta Zukerkandl’s famous Vienna salon, in which Klimt was introduced to the work of developmental biologist Emil Zukerkandl. It is likely that the public’s first encouter with images of embryos were made through this artwork rather than direct scientific exposure to the imagery.

3. Host an art-science event in your workplace or organization. This could be a science-art or data visualization contest, an art show, slideshow or party. You can follow the lead of such prominent programs as the NSF International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge or Princeton’s Art of Science competition, or create something of your own. Bonus science outreach points for finding ways to include the public (not just your department) in your event. For example, Art.Science.Gallery. was recently hired by the Texas Academy of Science to curate an exhibition of artworks created by their members, to be displayed in an art show at their annual meeting (see the catalogue of works on Issuu). It was a great way to get more exposure for TAS, it provided a creative opportunity for their members, got them some new members who are now actively involved in the organization, and the art was displayed in a public space!

 4. Dedicate time to whatever creative activities you enjoy, whether that’s music, drawing, filmmaking, photography, poetry, ceramics, whatever! It doesn’t have to be directly science-related to have an impact on your cognitive process. We scientists are often feel pressure to dedicate ourselves 24/7 to our scientific responsibilities – but don’t let advisors, bosses or colleagues dissuade you from your creative outlet. Even if it is “just a hobby”, that doesn’t mean it isn’t crucial to good work-life balance, or that it won’t feed back into your scientific career. If nothing more, it will help you be able to think of your scientific work in relation to other disciplines, which is one of the first steps in good science communication. You must be able to explain your work’s place in the world, and it’s hard to even think about that if you don’t step back from “science headspace” regularly.

Art-science collaborations can take many forms, and can help to communicate some really exciting science! I can’t wait to see y’all at the symposium in November, where I’ll share some more practical tips for how to integrate art into your science outreach toolbox. What are some of your favorite examples of such collaborations? Please share them in the comments below.

 P.S. Art.Science.Gallery. will be having an awesome entomology art show (curated by yours truly and the incredible entomo-art guru Barrett Klein – another speaker in the Broaden Your Impact symposium) from November 9 – December 1, 2013 and I invite you all to stop by when you’re in town for the ESA meeting!

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2 thoughts on “Guest Blog: Use Art (yes, art!) to Enhance Your Science

  1. Reblogged this on biocreativity and commented:

    Hi there biocreativity readers! I’ve been hard at work putting together our new brick-and-mortar gallery space at Art.Science.Gallery. (we’re plannign to open with an awesome entomology show in November!) and I thought you might like this guest post I did for the Broaden Your Impact blog. How have you used art to enhance your science!?

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