Art-Science Collaborations: What are they good for?

Sophia Tintori

Interdisciplinary, collaborative: these buzzwords often appear in the descriptions of grant proposals, university departments, or new training initiatives to highlight their strengths. You may be familiar with their sway in convincing someone to provide financial support or resources. An infinite number of connections are possible to facilitate collaborative research. I wanted to highlight one cross-field connection that sometimes gets a bad rep for being a hindrance to scientific progress, and that is science art. There is a growing movement in support of the potential benefits of science-art collaborations – it even has its own hashtag: #SciArt. Why is art important to science?

This topic is not new to the ASCB Post: Courtney K. Crothers and Dhruba Deb each covered this and the rich history of overlap between science and art in past articles. With this in mind, I would like to further the conversation, putting current science-artists in the spotlight. In an attempt to provide a very broad and biology-biased (and by no means comprehensive) overview of what’s out there in the #SciArt-verse, I have asked several science-artists about their collaborative work and why it is important to them. Their answers are real gems and make me wonder: What other profound reflections await discovery in the #SciArt world? I hope you will find this compilation insightful or at least enjoyable. Maybe it will even inspire new #SciArt collaborations. These are the folks interviewed:

[Name, Position – Art Media(um)]
  • Ahna Skop, Professor at UW-Madison – anything: glass, paper, ceramics, paint, beads, cake
  • Beata Edyta Mierzwa, Postdoc at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, UC-San Diego – hand-drawn illustrations and fashion
  • Bob Goldstein, Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill – screen printing
  • B. Duygu Özpolat, Hibbitt Fellow (PI) at MBL – drawing, pottery, embroidery, and digital art
  • Jessica Polka, Executive Director of ASAPbio – fiber
  • Julie Light, Artist, Cell Biology and Medical Imaging Enthusiast – glass and other sculptures
  • Sophia Tintori, Freelance nonfiction filmmaker applying for Biology postdocs – film, animation, cartoons

Describe your science-art.

AS: “My SciArt is varied but all inspired by science. My work ranges from microscopic images to watercolors to ceramics to sandblasted glass.”

BEM: “My drawings aim to communicate complex research findings and biological concepts with unconventional analogies, like a pair of hands pulling apart the chromosomes for mitosis or cells using scissors to cut their connection in the last step of cell division. For each illustration, I create a detailed hand drawing using pencil on paper and then add color digitally. I also created a science-inspired fashion line, with clothing and accessories printed with my own drawings and microscopy images.”

BG: “In Chapel Hill as in many towns, there are artists who screen print gig posters for bands and put the posters up around town. Some of the posters are beautiful, lovingly made and hand-numbered – and then left up on telephone poles, out in the rain. We decided to hire some of these gig poster makers to make posters for some special science seminars, until friends of mine who know how to screen print said to me, “you idiot, screen printing is easy!” So my kids and I tried. After a lot of trial and error, we got the hang of it. Now I print big (12.5 x 19 inch) posters for about 8 or 9 seminars each year.”

BDÖ: “In my artwork, I use the beauty we encounter in scientific research to celebrate life, cultivate curiosity, and incite appetite for discovery. The seeds of each drawing often come from an encounter with an astonishing life form, organ, structure, pattern, or cell. I dig deeper into the science by reading scientific papers on the subject and examining visual elements more closely before I finally combine them into a drawing. I also like to glean inspiration from traditional art styles (such as Turkish ceramic paintings), natural history museums, and scientific illustrations (such as Ernst Haeckel’s drawings, and old biology manuscripts).”

JP: “I mostly build models out of yarn, typically using crochet, though I’ve experimented with knitting and embroidery too.”

JL: “My recent work focuses on cell biology, genetic disease and the outcomes of mutation…I work with representations of cells, organs, and other bodily structures, but I want to create alternative visions to those often picked up by the media where most of us get our information…aiming to recontextualize the familiar and create interesting juxtapositions, as well as developing metaphors that stop us taking scientific developments for granted without questioning how they change the way we think about our bodies.”

ST: “I make non-fiction films and animations about scientific topics, usually for or with other scientists. These films are made to communicate specific ideas rather than primarily being a mode of personal self-expression, so I think of the work as something closer to journalism, documentary, or science communication rather than art per se. But of course, some personal expression comes through, because when I’m deciding how to explain the science, I usually identify the part that’s most exciting to me, and let that be my guide.

What led you to explore science with art?

AS: “I was overwhelmed with the beauty of mitosis and realized that I had to share it with others as I knew it was a privilege to see what I was seeing.”

BEM: “The first time I got into science art was when I made artwork to depict the theme of my PhD research. I quickly realized that showing the drawing as part of my scientific presentations was an excellent way to introduce my research question, and I was overwhelmed by the positive feedback I received from the scientific community…I started spending countless nights drawing in addition to my daily experiments in the lab.”

BDÖ: “When I look through a microscope, I feel like I am traveling to different worlds very few people can see. This is a feeling that never gets old. I started drawing in an attempt to share with others the wondrous things that I observe as a scientist.” Read more from Duygu here.

JL: “Many of us come into contact with medical imaging at some time or another…Similarly, most of us have had some contact with cancer or other diseases of mutation…And when I started making artwork, these were the subjects that kept emerging in my work. Over the last 50 years, we have all been exposed to images of the human body and ideas about disease that were unthinkable previously, images that form part of our frame of reference for how we understand our health.”

ST: “I am the kind of person who has a hard time enjoying something without immediately wanting to tell someone about it. Very few people in my personal community are scientists, and so I’ve had a lot of practice finding the entry point to a scientific idea that allows a non-scientist to understand the twist or surprise that’s tickling me.”

BG: “…an artist at UNC named Beth Grabowski who co-wrote a popular guide to printmaking materials and processes…asked if I wanted to co-teach a course together…We had seven students with a strong biology background and seven with a strong art background, and they all made biology-based art in a terrific print studio on the UNC campus. Many of the printmaking techniques were new to me, so I learned alongside the students and made some prints too…It’s easy for us to see how science can influence art, but Beth and I have an ambition to have art influence science as well.”

Why do you think it’s important to explore science with art?
AS: “Art education is absolutely necessary for all scientists to be innovative problem solvers, especially as the public engages with science so much in short snippets and visuals via social media nowadays.  If you can’t communicate your science visually, where will your audience be? I enthusiastically encourage all scientists and artists to work together to solve problems and communicate their work to the public.  It is absolutely a necessary aspect of innovation.

BEM: “My drawings aim to communicate science in different ways – for scientists to appreciate biological findings in a refreshing way, and for non-scientists to discover the beauty in fundamental biological principles.”

JP: “Going through the process of building models calls attention to details and relationships that are easy to gloss over and ignore...I think the process encourages a deeper understanding of the subject matter.”

JL: “I hope that people coming away from my work think about the processes of sickness and health in their bodies differently as a result of seeing it.”

ST: “Anyone who’s looked through a microscope can tell you that each cell is not identical…They have texture, and sometimes little pieces of them tear off – they are each messy in different ways, just like each of us. It’s just that their messiness is on such a small scale it can be difficult to appreciate. But the messiness is important to try to report, both as a scientist and as someone who is giving others a sense of the microscopic world. When we illustrate cell behavior using glossy circles and squares that move in smooth straight lines, we send a subliminal message that once you zoom in, life becomes more mathematical, and that’s just not true. Of course, I understand that glossy circles and squares are the easiest and quickest way for most scientists to sketch out their idea, and I don’t begrudge anyone that…My hope is that by using tactile materials—a pencil’s unsteady line or ink that pools irregularly—I can subliminally suggest that microscopic life is just as sloppy and mysterious and beautiful as macroscopic life is, and that everyone is invited to consider and enjoy it.”

Other scientists or artists or science-artists that inspire their work:

Luke Jerram, Greg Dunn, D. Allan Drummond, Jessica Rosenkrantz, Janet Iwasa, Squigglevision people who animated Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, Charles Siebert, Brother Nature, Michael Skop, John White, Barbara McClintock, Joan Miró, Antoni Gaudi, Frank Kozik, Valerie Lueth, Natalie Andrew, Dyche Mullins, Celja Uebel

Other places to find science and art working in tandem:

Exhibitions and Galleries: The Art of a Scientist Exhibition at Duke University, Art of Science Exhibition at Stanford University, Science Gallery London, Visualize: Art Revealing Science by Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, Elegance of Science Contest – Florida Museum, Intersecting Methods Portfolio, The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Genetic Reflections at UW-Madison

Performances: Myelination by Dorrance Dance Company, Dance your PhD Contest at Science

Courses: Merging Printmaking and Biology at UNC Chapel Hill, Various courses at Stanford University

Questions for you, the reader:

As mentioned earlier, this is by no means a comprehensive list, just a snapshot of what’s out there. Are there other science-artists that you would like to shout-out in the comments? What are your thoughts on #SciArt? Do you think it has a place in the academic and/or non-academic spheres? Do these examples inspire you to rekindle past artistic pursuits, maybe using scientific subject matter?


About the Author:

Kira Heikes is a graduate student in Bob Goldstein's laboratory at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is currently studying embryonic development in tardigrades. Twitter: @KiraTheExplora Email: