Combining Art and Science to Produce Better Research

Sep 19, 2019, 10:00:00 AM / by Alex A. Goldberg, Ph.D.

Art and ScienceWhether you enjoy watching films, listening to music, or painting in your spare time, art plays a major part of our everyday lives. Films today are seen by hundreds of millions of people worldwide—let’s be honest, who hasn’t seen Avengers: Endgame?—and are generally critiqued on their artistic merits, whether the reviewer is a trained critic or not. However, the connection between art and its influence on science (and vice versa) isn’t always as apparent. What’s certain is that art shares many similarities to the scientific method, with lessons that can help scientists as they make new discoveries and try to place them in a broader context.    


Benefits of combining art and science

#1 – Expanding your communication skills

A major component of art is finding new ways to communicate messages and themes. Artists are trained to elicit emotion from their audience, whereas scientists are trained to think logically, without letting emotional bias influence their findings. However, research has shown that by infusing creativity into the education and training of future scientists, you foster a research environment that is conducive to innovation.1 Visual, spatial, and graphical arts can all help improve visual modes of problem solving and communication. Moreover, incorporating arts into the teaching of scientific concepts can also make the science more relatable and fun. This can promote inclusion into STEM (i.e. science, technology, engineering, and math), leading to a greater variety of people that will eventually become scientists themselves, who can further advance innovation.

When it comes to explaining their findings to a larger audience, scientists often lack the skills to do so efficiently. The use of illustrations and graphics can help get a complicated point across more easily and may be more easily understood by a wider audience. This is especially important for findings that have a global impact, like translational research into vaccines, cancer, and other common debilitating illnesses. It’s easy for society to take a piece of newly published information and warp it into something that’s completely different from the scientist’s intended message (vaccines, for instance). Part of the responsibility therefore lies with the researcher, who must clearly relay both their numerical analyses as well as the ultimate conclusions of their study. Here, taking part in artistic endeavors, such as creative writing and painting, can help assess the best method of communicating your findings and sharpen your skills at conveying them.

#2 – Promoting the exchange of new ideas

Scientists pride themselves on thinking out the box, and so do artists. The continual exchange of ideas is what drives both fields, yet the way an artist thinks is often strikingly different than how a scientist does. Artists tend to emphasize the big picture and how society works, focusing more on open-ended exploration. Their messages are intended for as wide an audience as possible. In contrast, scientists frequently think about the minute details of their study: the best way to transfect cells, how a signaling circuit is activated, or why one experimental group looks different from the other. Scientists don’t always step back and assess the global consequences of their research or what the ethical implications are. Mixing art and science could help scientists solve complex problems by visualizing them in unusual ways, while helping them envision how their findings could affect society.

#3 – Driving future change

As new technologies become the norm, society must struggle with how to best implement them. Artificial intelligence (AI) is a great example of a science-driven technology that has the capacity to greatly influence the entire world. Questions regarding ethics and policy are also being asked about gene editing technology, with the renowned case of Dr. He Jiankui using CRISPR to edit the genomes of embryos, resulting in the first live birth of a gene-edited human. Dr. Jiankui was largely called dangerous and irresponsible by the scientific community, but solutions regarding how gene editing should be policed are still up for debate. By maintaining a firm connection with both politicians and citizens, art can be a useful way to start having these conversations. This would permit society as a whole to participate in the discussion, with art positioned to lead the debate about how to view these new technologies as well as the possible ethical quandaries that could arise from their implementation. 

#4 – Improving focus and hand-eye coordination

This benefit is mainly related to certain categories of art, like drawing and painting, which require dexterity and a lot of time and patience to master. Keeping a steady hand is essential both in the lab and when creating visual artwork, with each stroke determining the outcome of your image and each movement of the pipette determining how consistent your results are. Working on a large-scale art project can also provide a similar experience to running your own research project, both of which can last months to years.

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American Society for Microbiology Agar Art Contest winners. Left: "The battle of winter and spring," Ana Tsitsishvili, Undergraduate Student, Agricultural University of Georgia, Tbilisi, Georgia, 2018. Right: "Neurons," Mehmet Berkmen, Ph.D., Senior Scientist, New England Biolabs, Ipswich, MA, United States, Maria Peñil Cobo, Mixed Media Artist, Beverly, MA, United States, 2015.

New trends in combining art with science

Mixing art and science isn’t a new concept: Leonardo da Vinci studied the human body from both artistic and scientific perspectives, Galileo studied art to better portray the things he saw through a telescope, and Picasso blended mathematics and technology into art to create cubism. Art is still very present in science, with an entire section of Nature’s website dedicated to books and culture and many other publications showcasing artistic science photos regularly. A new form of art has even been generated using microorganisms, called petri dish art. The American Society for Microbiology holds yearly contests for petri dish art, encouraging students and lab personnel to combine their knowledge of bacteria and fungi with their artistic skills. One of the larger current projects to incorporate art and science is spearheaded by Dhruba Deb, a lung cancer biologist. In 2014, he launched the Cancer ART-SCI Network, which has recruited more than 200 scientists and artists, with the aim of connecting people from both fields and promoting “para-disciplinarity,” where individuals perform both disciplines in a parallel, synchronous fashion. His efforts have already led to two publications in the journal Leonardo, with a special section devoted to art and cancer.

It’s true that art imitates life and that life ultimately imitates art. In a scientific context, this is especially relevant as artistic creations frequently lead to new realms of scientific discovery and feats of engineering. They make us think about the world in ways we don’t necessarily see in the lab, where many are trained to focus on a small set of techniques and/or the minute details of tiny molecules. Integrating art into your work is necessary not only to understand the significance of your life’s work to this world, but also to develop ways of improving your theoretical and practical approaches.

Reference:

  1. National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA). Critical Evidence: How the Arts Benefit Student Achievement. Washington, DC; 2006.

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Topics: Science