Getting the Most Out of Science through Art

Engaging in Art and Science Collaborations

This is a guest post by Zack Brym (@ZackBrym). He is a graduate student in our group interested in the form and function of orchard trees. He has also developed an interest in scientific communication. He is sharing his recent experience translating his Ph.D. research into dance and what he learned from it.

Why is it that some scientists experience large swings between accomplishing a lot all at once and drought-like periods of inactivity? Successful scientists maintain a manageable pace of activity and work efficiently around deadlines, but sometimes the ups and downs of productivity are dictated by something more intangible. Wisely, an adviser helped explain to me that “Science is a creative process. You just don’t have it in you all the time.” I very much agree with him and have embraced the opportunity to explore creativity in science.

There is a place for creativity within all steps of the scientific process. Innovation is the result of imagining new experimental designs, analytical techniques, or revolutionary ideas. Creativity can also be expressed while troubleshooting an idea or figuring out how to communicate key findings. I believe creativity is especially required for scientists working at the forefront of their discipline and I personally seek it out just as much as I do more conventional academic stimuli.

Communicating science clearly and broadly to the public through creative outreach tools is of increasing importance to scientists. Naturally, there are a number of ways that this is currently happening. Mark Brunson and Michele Baker are working hard at improving visibility of science at Utah State University with their Translational Ecology Curriculum. At the University of Florida, the Creative Campus Committee developed a speaker series to explore “Analogous Thinking in the Arts and Sciences”. Part of the program included a biology professor, Jamie Gillooly, who actively engaged as a scholar in residence at the School of Art. Nalini Nadkarni at the University of Utah has developed the Research Ambassador Program which provides resources to scientists to reach out to diverse public audiences like prisoners, religious groups, elderly, and urban youth. Participants of a successful outreach program are given the opportunity to engage creatively with science which promotes the curiosity of complex systems and critical thinking skills.

At the mid-point of my Ph.D., I used creativity to help express the fundamental concepts of my research by working to convey those ideas clearly through art. This year, I joined the ranks of Dance Your Ph.D. entrants with my video Prune to Wild. Dance Your Ph.D. is an international video competition. The challenge is to communicate a key concept of your Ph.D. research using an interpretive dance. Doing the Dance Your Ph.D. video gave me two great benefits. I produced an amazing outreach tool for my science and I gained new insight and perspective about my research while developing the project. People are constantly asking me more about my research after seeing the video and telling others about it (e.g., Salt Lake Tribune, Herald Journal). And because of this project I have a better idea of what I want to say to them.

My communication skills benefited during the Dance Your Ph.D. project because I had to formulate a simple message about the fundamental concepts of my Ph.D research. To produce a meaningful dance video I was forced to describe my science in a way that my choreographer (Stephanie White) and filmmaker (Andy Lorimer) could translate into a dance video. More so, we were inspired by the Dance Your Ph.D. judging instructions to take an unconventional approach to making the video and emphasize artistry equally to science. The contest rules read, “The judges can penalize videos that rely heavily on elements that do not involve dance at all, such as written text and graphics.” Most entries use words and text in association with dance, but we chose to exclude words or text from the video aside from the title and credits.

If you are only using dance, it becomes extremely difficult to convey a strong message. I provide the intended message of the dance on my professional website for folks who might be less confident with their interpretation. Interestingly, it seems that viewers underestimate the amount of information they get from my video when they first approach me about it. I am generally pleased to confirm their basic understanding as correct and then we get to continue on in greater detail.

Making the video has been such a positive exercise in developing a simple research message that I have continued to seek out opportunities to reconstruct and simplify my thesis. Can you describe your science using only the 1000 most common words? My attempt is:

Wood grows to hold leaves to the sun. Some wood also holds food for people. Humans manage this wood to grow less and be short, but to make more food. I want to know more about the growing of wood so I can learn how to make more food with less wood, work, water, and whatever. (Developed at UpGoer5)

The message of my video was a bit more complex in word choice, but arguably as simple.

My goal is to develop an understanding of fruit trees so that I can recommend a management strategy that acknowledges the physiological constraints imposed on fruit trees through evolution while also producing an economically viable fruit. The resulting tree represents a “natural” tree architecture that actually uses fewer resources to produce fruit by achieving maximum physiological efficiency.

This text is a direct result of my Dance Your Ph.D. project. The video became a truly collaborative effort and I am very grateful for the contributions of artists in creatively describing my research. Collaborations between artists and scientists are becoming more recognized for their benefits. Supporting these efforts is formalized by the “STEM to STEAM” movement which is gaining traction in education policy. What’s more, through this project I am ever sure that science and its creative discoveries should be presented in an open and transparent manner so everyone has the chance to engage in the scientific process and contribute back in meaningful ways.

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