Integrating art and science: Perspectives from a professor and a student
By Julia Sacha and David R. Wessner, Department of Biology, Davidson College
We’ve all heard the disclaimer many times and in many forms. Whether it’s, “I’m not a science person,” or “I’m more of a left-brain person,” people tend to categorize themselves as scientists or artists. Too frequently, higher education perpetuates this dichotomy. Within the academy, opportunities for collaboration between natural sciences faculty and arts and humanities faculty often are limited. Courses spanning both divisions are rare. Indeed, on many campuses, spatial separations exist between the laboratories of the scientists and the studios of the artists, thus constructing a physical barrier that impedes cross-pollination and the transdisciplinary exchange of ideas.
Yet, we know that our intellectual exploration of any topic flourishes when we consider various perspectives. Indeed, many individuals have argued quite convincingly that the existing art-science divide represents an artificial and unfortunate dichotomy. C. P. Snow probably most famously argued for the bridging of this divide in his 1959 publication, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. More recently, Nobel Prize-wining neurobiologist Eric Kandel has highlighted similarities in the very processes employed by the scientist and the artist (Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures, 2015). The message in these and other works is clear: we need to break down the silos in which art and science too often reside.
The issue, it seems, is not if a bridge should be built between the arts and the sciences, but how the bridge can be constructed. How can art be incorporated into a science course? How can science be incorporated into an art course? We’d like to offer a few examples, from the perspectives of a faculty member (DW) and a student (JS), of how we have melded art and science in undergraduate courses at Davidson College. We’d like to emphasize that major course revisions are not necessary. We’d also like to emphasize that major resources are not necessary. In simple yet impactful ways, we have more intentionally melded the two disciplines. The results, we argue, benefit everyone.
[DW] As a professor, I first incorporated art into a science course while I was teaching genetics. During the semester, I included a fairly lengthy unit on the molecular biology of breast cancer. Students read and discussed several of the primary journal articles in which researchers concluded that mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes result in an increased risk of breast cancer. We examined the biochemical functions of the associated proteins. We discussed the genetic screening tests that have been developed. In short, we took a very reductionist view of breast cancer. Although I provided the students with a strong understanding of the molecular biology of breast cancer, I did not include a discussion of the human component of the disease.
Serendipity allowed me to address this shortcoming. While I was teaching this course, the Van Every/Smith Galleries at Davidson College hosted “Re/Formations,” an exhibition focused on women and disability. One of the featured artists, Nancy Fried, displayed sculptures that depict the post-mastectomy torsos of women. During one class period, my students and I walked across campus to the art gallery where a co-curator of the exhibition gave us a short tour. Suddenly, both my students and I gained a new understanding of this disease. The trip to the art gallery added a human aspect to our classroom discussions. The sculptures allowed us to understand the molecular biology in a new way and also reminded us that the experiments we do in the laboratory matter.
A similar case of serendipity allowed me to introduce art more intentionally into an HIV/AIDS course that I teach. Along with several colleagues, I curated “Re/Presenting HIV/AIDS,” an exhibition of art and public health posters related to the pandemic. For me, the very process of choosing the art was invigorating. I certainly have enjoyed visiting many varied exhibitions. However, never before had I been involved in the process of curating an exhibition. In considering works of art, I thought about each piece from the perspective of a science educator. What scientific information does this piece convey? How can I use this piece of art as a jumping off point for a discussion in my biology class? In what ways does this piece augment the scientific information I currently include in my course? For me as a scientist, I began looking at works of art differently.
Again, a class field trip to the exhibition allowed my students and I to experience science in a new way. Through art, we learned more about the lived experiences of HIV/AIDS. For example, Frederick Wilson’s Blue in the Face III (2006) provided us with a poignant reminder of the challenges and hardships associated with HIV/AIDS treatment regimens. Similarly, Albert J. Winn’sThe Band-Aids Series: Chest Patch (2012) emphasized the clinical aspects of treatment and care.
Student viewing works of art in Re/Presenting HIV/AIDS exhibition at Davidson College.
This introduction of art into my HIV/AIDS course, however, was not simply a “one-and-done” experience tied to the exhibition. Instead, the exhibition has allowed me to introduce art more intentionally into my courses. In my HIV/AIDS course, for example, I now use works of art like Jessica Whitbread’sSpace Dates (2013) series to begin class discussions about transmission, safer sex, and HIV criminalization laws. Whitbread’s photographs depict a couple on a date, while wearing space suits. The playful images invite numerous questions. Can the virus be transmitted via casual contact? What is the risk of transmission? For someone who is HIV-positive, should unprotected sex be considered a criminal act? Another artist, Shan Kelley, recounts in his Disclosures (2013) series, the intimate conversations between lovers, one of whom is HIV-positive. Again, showing these images to my students allows us to begin a conversation about transmission. What does it mean to have an undetectable viral load? If we can decrease the viral load to undetectable levels, then why can’t we cure an HIV infection? Some students may be more likely to interrogate these questions if art provides the entrée. Other students may consider the science more humanely. For everyone, I would argue, the inclusion of art invigorates the classroom discussion of the science.
[JS] As a student, I developed my interest in art and science separately, excited by both but unsure how they could connect. I first combined these subjects when I wrote, illustrated, and published 24 and 23 Make Me, an illustrated book geared for a 7th grade audience that explains the biology of Down syndrome. When I came to Davidson College, I enrolled in both biology and art courses, still uncertain of how I could combine my two interests. To my surprise, the intersection came quite naturally. My poetry was sprinkled with words like “clathrin,” “splicing,” and “cysteine.” My journal was peppered with benzene rings personified with faces. The art-biology crossover came more formally, however, in my Advanced Painting class when the instructor asked us to select a topic for our paintings. I chose the broad theme of biology, pulling inspiration from my classes and notes.
In my conservation biology class, I was fascinated to learn about the web of unintended effects humans have on the natural world. One particularly interesting example of this impact involves the consequences of habitat fragmentation on human health. Habitat fragmentation describes the creation of smaller land units from a larger unit. Large predators cannot survive in these new smaller habitats. As habitat area decreases, species diversity also decreases. For example, without predators, white-footed mice will disproportionately thrive. The white-footed mouse is an excellent carrier of Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease, thereby increasing someone’s likelihood of being bitten by a tick harboring this microbe. To convey this concept in my painting, I decided to use a variety of techniques including color choice, layering, and abstraction. The greens, blues, and browns in the background of Habitat Fragmentation represent the natural world, whereas the pinks and purples in the foreground represent construction and other human interferences that can lead to the increased Lyme disease prevalence. The yellow amoxicillin antibiotic molecule shows a quick biochemical remedy for Lyme disease. The brightly defined lines of the molecule visually contrast the abstracted fragmentation shown in the background of the painting. The layers show the relationship of seemingly distinct events, i.e. habitat fragmentation and Lyme disease. Through art, I was not only able to think critically about how to depict these specific levels of biological interaction but also to engage with larger concepts of human culpability in our health and environment.
"Habitat fragmentation" engages with ideas of human effects on the environment, as depicted by layered paint and contrasting styles.
As a part of the same art project, I created a piece depicting the organized chaos of exocytosis. This cellular process occurs almost constantly, involving a flood of signals and messages. In Exocytosis, I used different colors, shapes, and dripping oils to simulate the cellular havoc. The differently sized circles represent vesicles budding off from the surface of a cell. Additionally, I used a technique where I added excess oil and allowed it to drip over the wet paint, thereby pulling some of the pigment with it and leaving lighter, almost translucent lines. Together these lines form a grid that gives structure to the piece, contrasting the chaos of circles. Painting Exocytosis required creative consideration of these cellular interactions. This type of imaginative thought expanded my understanding of exocytosis beyond memorization of enzymes and proteins.
"Exocytosis" uses shapes and color to imagine a network of budding vesicles.
The creation of Habitat Fragmentation and Exocytosis opened a field of questions that allowed me to engage with biology in a fresh, unorthodox way. I made both paintings abstract to demonstrate biological complexities. Although it may have been easier for me to paint an illustrative diagram of some of the key enzymes involved in the formation of a vesicle, for example, that would not have displayed the larger picture of intercellular commotion. In other instances, illustrations may be easier, particularly when students are first introduced to material. Regardless of the type of art I’m making, imaginative freedom helps me retain biological information, while also providing an unconventional and complex subject for my artwork. I love when friends and fellow biology majors ask about the pieces hanging in my apartment hallway. I then get to talk about the joy I receive from creating biological artwork, and how each subject has mutually aided my skills and understanding of the other.
Fellow students may also glean knowledge from scientific artwork. A professor could show their students a piece such as Exocytosis, for example, and ask them to respond to the piece. Students could gain insight through their use of new vocabulary to describe a familiar concept. In conclusion, artistic exploration of biological concepts allows both the artist and fellow students to think critically about scientific material by reframing the context of learning.
As we have shown in these few examples, from the perspective of a professor and a student, the melding of art and science in the classroom broadens the intellectual discourse. This broadening, we argue, is imperative. From climate change to the global water shortage to the continuing scourge of infectious diseases, today’s complex problems will require multifaceted solutions. The STEM fields may provide the basis for these solutions, but science, technology, engineering, and math alone will not be enough. Each of these global problems includes a very important human component, which the arts and humanities can help us understand. Thus, only STEAM will allow us to develop constructive, humane solutions to our most vexing challenges. Today’s students cannot afford to learn information in a compartmentalized manner. Rather, they need to see the connections between various disciplines. Tomorrow’s solutions to today’s problems will be found within the transdisciplinary spaces.
For students, the inclusion of art in a science course, or science in an art course, may be uncomfortable. That’s good. In the classroom, our students should be stretched. They should be asked to leave their intellectual comfort zones and experience the discomfort of wrestling with new approaches and novel ideas. It improves the learning experience for everyone. For educators, the full-scale melding of the arts and sciences may be a daunting task. At every institution, curricular changes are difficult. From our experiences, however, meaningful small-scale changes can be made quite easily. Instructors can use art as a jumping off point for in-depth scientific discussions. Students can broaden their understanding of complex processes by incorporating scientific imagery into their artistic creations. For the two of us, a professor and a student, the relatively minor inclusions of art in the science course and science in the art course greatly enriched our classroom experiences. With these simple changes, we have begun the necessary transition from STEM to STEAM.
Dave Wessner is a Professor of Biology at Davidson College, where he teaches introductory biology and courses on microbiology and HIV/AIDS. He co-authored Microbiology, a textbook for undergraduate biology majors, and Vision and Change in Undergraduate Education: A Call to Action. He also co-curated Re/Presenting HIV/AIDS, an exhibition that featured artistic works related to HIV, and Gut Instinct, an online exhibition focused on the human microbiome. He earned his PhD in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics from Harvard University and his BA in Biology from Franklin and Marshall College. Dave spends most of his free time playing with Connie and Ian and hanging out at Summit Coffee. You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
Julia Sacha graduated from Davidson College in 2017 with a degree in Biology. She recently moved to Asheville, NC, where she works as a Clinical Research Coordinator at Mountain Diabetes and Endocrine Center. At Davidson, Julia enjoyed taking art courses, leading trips for Davidson Outdoors, and hanging out with her hall residents. During her free time, you might find her surfing, biking, or dancing. You can follow her on Instagram and Facebook.