Brushes and Beakers: Better Science Through Art

 Oct 19, 2015    by Rosie Records

Something important is missing from your to-do lists, and it’s not what you think it is. As an early career scientist, you probably have more than one of these lists, like me. There’s a professional development to-do list, a “work-life balance” list, and a to-do list for outreach and mentoring of a new generation of scientists (not to mention the daily grind lists of writing, researching, grocery-shopping, etc.). I recently discovered that for years I’ve been overlooking something critical in these priorities. That something is art and creative expression.

Yes, we often don’t think of art going hand in hand with a scientific career, but I’ll try to shake this belief with some interesting research and some stories of my own. It’s ironic that I also held this opinion about the incompatibility of artistic and scientific work, because art is more or less what got me into the sciences. In middle school I spent several winters and springs volunteering at a seal colony on weekends with family, talking with National Seashore visitors about the seals and the park’s natural history (I know, pretty nerdy—but also great). In between, I was at a scope filling a notebook with field sketch after sketch of seals swimming, resting, and fighting.

Although other aspects of the volunteering had a definite influence, I think that the sketches were a gateway into science because they prompted focused observation, curiosity, and appreciation of the world around me—common ground with art and sciences alike. I ended up working at the park in high school, and went on to undergraduate and graduate work in the sciences. Just last year, I heard a Colorado State wildlife faculty member describing at a panel discussion how she also fell out of the “arty kid” label and into a scientific career. In her early years, she was constantly drawing dragons, and gradually these dragons prompted curiosity: What musculature would a magical winged beast or another animal need to actually fly? How would that work, exactly?

Point number one: Without an artistic entrée into science, both this professor and I might have been routed (or routed ourselves) into an “artsy” track in high school, college, and career, without discovering that we also loved science. When we do science outreach with kids, we might reach for the baking soda and beaker, but maybe we’ll get the attention—and perhaps the lifelong interest—of more kids if we also reach for the brush and bottle of paint.

This brings me to point number two: we rarely think of a need for more art and creative expression when we think of how to improve ourselves professionally as scientists. I’m used to the conventional academic’s communication toolbox: peer-reviewed publications, talks and posters at a professional conference, maybe a few (perhaps numbingly technical) presentations to stakeholder groups. Art and creativity are often at the heart of an effective scientific or conservation message, yet seem to be scarce in climate change communication. Where they do crop up, we can tell the difference: see the storytelling and cinematography of a film series like Years of Living Dangerously and Climate Wisconsin, or look at the scientific graphics that your peers with a bachelor’s in fine arts do now that they’re science PhDs (I have, and let me tell you, their figures blow mine out of the water).

Nor are film and figures the only art medium for science communication. In my field, hydrology, interactive projects like the Gathering of Waters engage communities in public art. Artist Basia Irland rallied hundreds of participants to place Rio Grande River water into a canteen, passing the vessel to another person at a location downstream; the vessel was accompanied by a portable sculpture and educated participants on environmental stressors on the river.

And the relationship of art to science is not restricted to simply translating the end of a long scientific process into a compelling message. Art can be an integral part of the research itself. A few anecdotal examples: Jean Wright, a seamstress with a passion for space, used her fabric skills to hand-stitch the quilted insulation covering a NASA space shuttle. And according to my campus grapevine, a competitive grant was recently awarded to collaborative effort between hydrologists and a textile artist on a new field sampling design.

Still not convinced? My last point: art and creativity are key to a whole-hearted, resilient life (if you feel skeptical, it’s based on research and also comes from the mouth of a credentialed academic[1]). Our usual work-life balance checklist (if, so help us, we even have one) usually includes adequate sleep, healthy food, and some precious time with loved ones—but we often stop there. Creativity and art also have an important place on that checklist, and in the long run could also better our science communication and recruit a broader base of young scientists.

How do you incorporate creativity into your science and your work-life balance, and how are you going to in the future? Especially if you don’t have a creative pastime currently, I challenge you to take one on. You might be surprised.

[1] Credit for this goes to the research of Brené Brown, Ph.D. and her book “The gifts of imperfection”
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Images: Rosie Records, 1997