Communicating Science Through Art

WATWIC-Bright-TuqBlkThis is my first post for the “We are the World” Blogfest. (It’s a day late, just like yesterday’s Thursday Doors post on Friday. Time doesn’t always move in a linear fashion in my world.) To participate in this blogfest, join us on the last Friday of each month. As the co-hosts say, “no story is too big or small, as long as it goes beyond religion and politics, into the core of humanity.”

When I was a graduate student at Stanford in the 1990s, I worked with a young professor, Susan McConnell, on growth factors that promoted brain development. She wasn’t my advisor, but she had worked in my PhD lab as a postdoc, and when she set up her own lab, she and my advisor collaborated closely. I still remember that when she left the lab, I inherited her desk.

The story I am linking to, Communicating Science Through an Artistic Lens at Stanford, describes work that Dr. McConnell has done more recently, melding her roles as a college professor and a conservation photographer. She founded a program called “The Senior Reflection” that teaches biology seniors to communicate science to the public through art.  I clicked through to the originals of two of the student reflections described in the article and I encourage readers here to do the same. One that touched me in particular was the audio podcast from student Mallory Smith, who suffers from cystic fibrosis, and who draws parallels between the way she sees young people treating their bodies, and humans treating the planet:

Many of us think we have all these second, third, and fourth chances and we can do as we please, that humanity and the planet we rely on are like a phoenix, venerable and beautiful and timeless. That the earth is a burning bird, and despite the trauma we put it through, it will turn to ash and regenerate. We can all waste and consume and waste and consume more, using resources like they’re ever-renewable, living like our species is going to die old. Living like nothing we do now is going to change that. But we’re coming to the end of our second, third, and fourth chances. What we do now, people will curse tomorrow and they’ll say I wish we hadn’t this, I wish I hadn’t that, what if we just….. If we’re all birds our choices lead us to burn; we’re not always going to get to rise up untainted, ever glorious, flying free.

My signature under the pledge not to buy ivory and to encourage my government to outlaw the sale of ivory and ivory products

Last year Dr. McConnell hosted an exhibit of her own photos of elephants, taken on safari in Africa. Two of the photos can be seen in this blog; others are in the linked article and on her website. Here she advocates on behalf of saving elephants and ending the ivory trade. Visitors were asked to take action on the animals’ behalf, for example to donate to the Elephant Crisis Fund or to sign a pledge not to buy or use ivory products.

I wish a program like this, uniting art and science, had existed when I was a student. My scientific training was very good, and rigorous, but I sometimes responded to the intensity and isolation of high-level technical study with feelings of resentment, loss, and even grief that another part of myself was being devalued and denied expression. I believe that programs like this can help heal our world, one individual at a time.

A photo of a photo from “On the Shoulders of Giants” by Susan McConnell

We Are the World Blogfest” seeks to promote positive news. Sharing these stories increases our awareness of hope in our increasingly dark world. This month it is co-hosted by: Belinda Witzenhausen, Lynn Hallbrooks, Simon Falk, Sylvia McGrath, and Damyanti Biswas.

15 thoughts on “Communicating Science Through Art”

  1. Hello there! I loved this post, and was hoping to write a blog post of my own talking about the importance of this type of outreach. Would you be okay with me citing this post in mine? I joined word press a of couple days ago (and haven’t even finished writing my first post yet), so I am not so sure of the etiquettes surrounding these matters. I would appreciate your thoughts about my request! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating! And what beautiful photos.

    Long ago a friend gave me a subscription to The Sciences, a magazine published by the New York Academy of Sciences. Unfortunately, it stopped publishing in 2001. It was an excellent science magazine, written for laypeople but with an expectation of intelligence and interest: neither technical nor dumbed down. And the coolest thing about it was that the articles were illustrated with art, usually contemporary–that is, the pieces were not illustrations commissioned for the articles, but someone on staff had the job of finding art that was appropriate (I thought that that would be a dream job). It made for such a fascinating combination.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are a lot of initiatives like this that seem to come and go. I would have enjoyed that magazine also! There are few facebook feeds that have interesting science-related art, too, such as “Science Communication and Visualization,” and Shenova, a Berkeley-based Etsy shop makes the most awesome science/art-themed dresses. I have the pink neuron one that I’m planning to wear to the March for Science.


  3. The arts and the sciences seem to me joined at the hip, and I might never understand why so many of us see one as superior in all or most ways to the other.

    I do realize, however, that some people find one more accessible to them than the other, which is a slightly different issue. But we should find ways of working around that, and the “sciences through the arts” program seems like one good way to do it.

    Thanks for such an interesting, and I believe, important, post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree and I loved this post! Both are so important, especially when trying to bridge the gap between science and the general public.

      By forming interdisciplinary teams made up of both scientists and artists, the issue of accessibility melts away. As a biologists, with little to recommend myself in the other area, I recently started working with a brilliant and enthusiastic artist who has opened up my eyes to new ways of visualizing the work that I had been looking at for years! All in a few days of working with each other. We are collaborating on an arts and sciences festival project to be displayed in four different countries exemplifying the connection and interdependency between plants and humans! Fortunately, my boss understands and encourages this type of collaboration and outreach. Unfortunately, I know many more researchers in academia that do not feel the same way.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. What an interesting subject, Karen. More importantly, I thought this comment of yours was very insightful and profound: “My scientific training was very good, and rigorous, but I sometimes responded to the intensity and isolation of high-level technical study with feelings of resentment, loss, and even grief that another part of myself was being devalued and denied expression.” Your intuition was very astute. How common that must be in the academic arena.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I can relate to this on a very personal level, having worked under several different science researchers in both an academic setting and a clinical setting. Having found my current position where such collaborations are not only accepted but encouraged, I can not imagine how anyone would not want such experiences to enrich the scientific training of everyone! It really broadens your outlook and allows for enhanced science communication as well as a deeper understanding of your work from a different point of view.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. “But we’re coming to the end of our second, third, and fourth chances…” Well, the probability of human extinction within the next hundred years, due to human causes, is a hot topic of debate. There’s ecological collapse and global warming, amongst other things.
    Communicating science through an artistic lens sounds like a fascinating perspective.
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is an interesting and inspiring approach to studying science. For some reason schools have tended to make art and science seem like opposites, but that never made much sense to me. The two disciplines are complementary, as Susan McConnell’s work shows. Great inaugural post for the #WATWB.

    Liked by 1 person

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