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How to Use Art to Spark STEAM Conversations

“Most people can understand stuff if it's explained in a way that… promotes their understanding… by directly engaging [them in] conversation with scientists [through art in a manner that eliminates intellectual] hierarchy.”
- Anna Dumitriu

What is the intersection of art -- the emotive expression of creativity and imagination, and science -- the systematic study of observed phenomena? Can mixing pigments to create new colors for a painting be considered science? Is the conveyance of observations related to the natural world a form of art?

To answer these questions, we talked to Anna Dumitriu, a world-renowned bioartist who incorporates biological materials into her work. We also spoke with three accomplished scientists that practice art in their free time and are members of the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) Team affinity group of the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship (STPF) program. We discovered what art means to them, their perspectives on the intersection of science and art, and the roles that science and art play in broadening conversations around STEAM.

Watch "Anna Dumitriu Integrates Science with Art to Create BioArt with the STEAM Team"

A Perspective on the Intersection of Science and Art from the Director of the Institute for Unnecessary Research

Anna Dumitriu is the Director of the Institute for Unnecessary Research and an award winning, internationally renowned British artist whose work incorporates BioArt, sculpture, installation, and digital media to explore the human relationship to infectious diseases, synthetic biology, and robotics.

While training in fine arts, she described becoming interested in the narratives around biological and scientific phenomena that have pervaded life throughout history. Her work often highlights the differences between what most people are taught about biology, particularly infectious agents like bacteria and viruses, and what scientists understand about them. To complete her art pieces, Anna collaborates with laboratory scientists so that she can transfer her knowledge about infectious diseases into art studios.

One of her works, the MRSA Quilt, uses embedded squares of cotton in a chromogenic agar that changes color to blue as Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (or MRSA) grows on it. MRSA is a bacterium that causes staph infection, a potentially deadly condition that is difficult to treat because it is resistant to antibiotics. Antibiotic susceptibility test discs and strips were placed within the agar, resulting in unique MRSA-induced patterns within the quilted cotton. Anna notes, “Quilts are a traditional way of passing down stories and the artwork can…be seen as a discussion tool to facilitate dialogue between the wider public and scientific research teams.”

(photo credit: Anna Dumitriu)

Anna also created a 1665-style dress titled Plague Dress that is constructed of plague DNA, raw silk, hand-dyed with walnut husks, and stuffed with herbs and spices, including lavender and turmeric. Plague Dress required her to work in a high security biosafety level (BSL)-3 laboratory. BSL-3 laboratories are used to study infectious agents or toxins that may be transmitted through the air and cause potentially lethal infections. To create Plague Dress, Anna had to grow Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that causes the plague, so that she could extract its DNA and “weave” it into the dress.

The raw materials that Anna incorporates into the dress are intentionally chosen to tell the story of the plague epidemic and the materials people used because they believed they would treat the disease. Plague Dress was part of the Contagious! exhibition housed at the Rijksmuseum Boerhaave from July 2020 to January 2022, a museum formerly known as a “Pest House” due to its history as a location where Plague victims were relocated for quarantine.

(photo credit: Anna Dumitriu)

Anna incorporates deadly pathogens into her BioArt to emphasize how the unique relationships that develop between infectious diseases and their human hosts play a pivotal role in shaping society and the progression of technology. Click here to watch Anna speak about the intersection of science and art.

Perspectives on the Intersection of Science and Art from an AAAS S&T Policy Fellow

Leslie Brooks, a veterinarian with training in public health, remarks: “For me, painting abstractly serves multiple purposes. First, it relaxes my brain and helps me slow down, giving my neural connections a chance to breathe and, without consequence, accept uncertainty, chaos, and mistakes in my creation. Second, it provides personable artwork for decorating my home, which provides somewhat of an art museum within reach on a daily basis. When I think of the relationship between science and art, I think about how art and science are complementary to each other, each making the other function better via synergy.

In the book Deep Medicine, Eric Topol touches on this when he discusses Yale’s medical school requiring students to learn the art of observation by spending time in an art museum. He references a case-control study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, which showed a drastic improvement in medical students’ observational skills after participating in art training, compared to those who did not participate in the art training. As scientists, sometimes our vision can become too narrow as we hyper-focus on the specific problem we are trying to solve. By integrating art with science, we can learn to take a step back and foster observational skills, which can help us visualize previously unseen connections, and thus become better scientists, no matter what our field of expertise.”

(photo credit: Leslie Brooks)

Reshmina William, a hydrologist and STPF fellow with an interest in equitable approaches to urban sustainability, expresses herself artistically through music. Her journey to incorporate science with art started with a physics professor she met during graduate school at UIUC: "When Smitha Vishveshwara, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign physics professor…, approached me in Fall 2018 with a unique opportunity to spread my creative wings, I couldn’t say no. Smitha’s pioneering class, Where Art Meets Physics... [encourages] students from across campus to combine their talents to create art that is scientifically inspired and accurate.” Listen to the excerpt below to hear a musical movement about the Voyager 1 spacecraft that Reshmina produced with another graduate student during the class.

“On Valentine’s Day 1990, the Voyager 1 spacecraft, suspended on the edge of our solar system, turned its cameras backwards and captured a unique photograph: the image of the earth, a pale blue dot less than a pixel across, suspended in a sunbeam. The image captured the world’s imagination, but also re-opened some troubling questions about our place in the cosmos. Who are we? Where are we? And are we alone? Nearly 30 years later, we are still searching for answers.

Voyager reflects on these questions, the uniqueness of our pale blue ‘mote of dust’, our need to cherish and protect it, and the spirit of exploration that launched us on our journey into the cosmos. The lyrics are inspired by Maya Angelou’s poem ‘A Brave and Startling Truth’, which was launched into space on the test flight of the Orion 5 deep space craft, a vessel that is designed to one day carry humanity towards the stars."

Click here to hear an excerpt from the musical movement about the Voyager 1 spacecraft

STPF fellow Ashley Pierce, trained as an atmospheric scientist with a focus on atmospheric mercury, started her graduate school journey in an art class as an undergraduate. Her art professor, Elizabeth Mead, suggested she get involved in a multidisciplinary program exploring mercury as a global pollutant through the lens of different disciplines. Though Ashley had always been on the science track in school, an environmental sculpture class with Elizabeth Mead was her first purposeful multidisciplinary experience in an academic setting that would carry through her entire science career.

Ashley believes there is science and art in everything people do. There is a science to making art, even if that art happens intuitively instead of by deliberate, scientific methods. Likewise, there is art to science, whether that is in the way in which you complete technical steps in the lab, the way you set up a measurement, or the way in which research findings are presented. Art draws a frame around an aspect of the world and gives us another way to describe what we see, hear, and feel. It also forces us to come up with creative ways to express what we are trying to convey.

While the BroodX, 17-year cicada emergence in 2021 was an interesting biological event, it was also full of artistic potential including cicada themed jewelry and clothing, the photography that captured the process, and the sculptures made up of the discarded exuviae (the shedded skin that cicadas leave behind). Ashley’s art consists of 3-dimensional pieces composed of discarded material, so it was an obvious step to collect cicada wings while walking around her neighborhood to create a series of artworks using pieces of cicada exuviae.

(photo credit: Ashley Pierce)

The intersection of art and science is dynamic and multifaceted. Scientists and artists are finding unique avenues through which to combine emotive and abstract expression with objective observations of the material world. These efforts invite diverse audiences into broad conversations about the intersection of scientific observation and the lens through which we interpret scientific observations to form our sense of reality. By incorporating the arts into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), new conversations emerge around STEAM to enhance our understanding of the physical world and expand our vocabulary for discussing the diversity of the human experience. 

Images and audio hosted by ScienceTheEarth.

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