In the month of January, we asked you to write about a time when creativity, imagination, or subconscious thought was important to your scientific or artistic work.
The challenge was inspired by Tom McLeish’s “The Poetry and Music of Science“. In this book, McLeish sets out to close the divide between science and art. He does this by demonstrating how creativity, imagination and a “messy” creative process – advanced at times by intangible and subconscious insights – are critical to both scientific and art disciplines. Our co-founder Paige Jarreau also interviewed Tom on re-discovering creativity in science.
Here is a selection of entries:
Entry #1 by Zoë Haim
No-one ever explicitly told me that art and science were separate paths in life, in fact, it was something I declared myself. When I entered year 9 at school and had to pick my GCSE subjects. I decided to drop art at this stage and when my mum asked why, I responded “It doesn’t make sense to take science and art, I’ll never have a career in art, so I have to focus on scientific subjects”. Although I’m not entirely certain where these ideas came from, I expect the media’s depiction of suffering artists and society’s pedestal for science, played a large part in my teenage mind deciding that only one path was feasible for a long-term career.
This wasn’t something that I really thought about any further until recently in my life, aged 30 now, and a full-time researcher in psychology. I never ‘gave up’ art, I continued as a hobby, though it wasn’t always easy to find time for and I wasn’t actively drawing or painting that regularly anymore. It was something I looked forward to during the most stressful periods of studying and learning, when I was too busy or stressed to think about being creative, but knowing it’d be there for me when I came out the other end, when I had time to relax and enjoy creating again.
However, more recently I have realised, I never stopped doing art or being creative whilst I was becoming or being a scientist. The nature of that creativity has taken on different forms, designing research to be pragmatic and adaptable relies on a brain that can utilise the imagination and mould different ideas into a plan. A big part of my job is also being literally creative, I design slides to teach and train, I make posters to display my science in a visually pleasing way, and I make materials for studies that have to appeal to different audiences. These parts of my job not only require creativity and an artistic mind, they reward it. Make a good scientific poster and you’ll be commended by your peers, make eye-catching research resources and it might attract someone to take part in your study. Art and science complement each other, scientists need art, and being an artist is science is a skill that needs to be encouraged. I’ve never felt happier in my career path, I didn’t have to pick after all, I’m a scientist doing art, or an artist doing science.
Entry #2 by Chelsie Boodoo
I cannot remember a time when science and art were separate for me. To pay for my undergraduate degree, I was a henna artist. When I moved for graduate school, I wanted to branch out more, create more things, and include my community. I started a science communication organization at Michigan State University (MSU SciComm). The first event we received support for was for a science-art exhibition. It was an exhilarating experience. Scientists and artists who never met each other came together to create art pieces that we showcased at the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams and later donated across the community. That day had more than an exhibition; we had a live science art show, a beer release, and science art activities at a planetarium. It was fulfilling to see over 1,000 people in the community learn and come together for science-art.
I saw children inspired and adults who were not usually in a science environment enthralled by the art helped me feel like I impacted others positively. As someone who is multilingual, I really appreciate that art can move people no matter what language they speak and no matter what age they are. This experience helped me learn more about material science and my research because I constructed a bladder to show it filling and voiding. I usually did not think about the bladder’s structural aspect, and I learned a great deal about it. After this experience, I realized that even though there was a pandemic, there are still other ways to reach people and feed their sense of wonder. I hosted a virtual exhibition the next year, and the digital pieces are being donated to local schools. Through this experience, I created public art that my city commissioned me to create. That art is still there and still teaches the community about space and DNA. Without art, I would not be the scientist I am, and I would feel lost without it.
Entry #3 by Joanna Ramasawmy
When I finished school, I decided to go to university to study physics. I wanted to understand how things work, and it seemed like the best way to find out. But I also liked doing lots of other things – I wasn’t sure if I was a scientist.
I had to choose an elective course in my first year. I was dithering between French or Philosophy and I couldn’t make up my mind, then at the last minute I picked Astronomy on a whim – I thought it sounded fun.
I remember distinctly the moment that got me hooked. We’d had our first lecture on galaxies that day, where our lecturer had shown us a diagram of our own galaxy the Milky Way, and how it was this incredible spiral disk shape. That from our unique perspective embedded inside it, we see it as a band of stars across the night sky. I’d never really got my head around that before.
That evening, I was walking home after orchestra practise. It was late, a cold dark Scottish autumn night, and the sky was wonderfully clear. I looked up and I could see it – the Milky Way. I stopped walking and I started to cry. It all clicked into place. It was so beautiful, so awesome, to feel a part of this huge system, to see the geometry of it all splayed out on the sky above me. To imagine the billions of people who have looked up at this spectacle over the centuries, puzzled over its nature, told stories about its origins, questioned and probed to find answers.
I had fallen in love with astronomy. I changed my degree to Astrophysics.
Ten years later, I’m writing up my PhD thesis on galaxy evolution. Sometimes, stuck on bugs in my code and frustrated with crunching impossible numbers, it all seems really difficult, and I forget what got me here in the first place. But any time I’m out somewhere very dark and clear and I catch the faintest glimpse of that band of light in the sky, it takes me back to that moment and I tear up a little. The night sky is as exceptionally beautiful as it is full of mystery, and I am so grateful that I’ve had the privilege to study it.
Entry #4 by Dr Lorraine Coghill
Dr X: “Errrrr….but what will the final piece actually look like?”
Me inside: “…and breathe…”
Me outside: “It’s a development process, a journey. The team are all working together, bringing in each other’s thoughts and perspectives, exploring ideas and creating the piece together. It wouldn’t be a process if we knew the answer before we started.”
Dr X: “But, of course, you do really know, you’re just not telling.”
Me inside: “Arghhhhhh!”
I consider myself to be incredibly lucky. I work with amazingly creative people who do amazing things. Some model the universe, some teach 5 year olds to read, some create the most stunning pieces of art, some encourage teenagers to build their confidence, some are trying to pass their SATs¹, several do elements of lots of these things… See, amazing! And me…? I encourage them all to work together to find commonality, celebrate diversity, inspire each other and create something from their experiences and learning. And so the outcome, well, that’s the result of the group’s interactions and collaborations, their creativity and experiences. It’s not up to me to decide or, indeed, the researcher or the teacher or the artist or any one individual… And that can be problematic as yes, we don’t know exactly what the end point will look like when we start. And yes, I completely understand that some people find that exciting whilst others find it really challenging and sometimes even frightening.
That’s not to say that there’s no strategy, no organisation or planning. I’m an educator, a facilitator of learning, and so I ground my work in evidence and experience and quite a few ‘lesson’ plans. And it is certainly not an easy option. In fact, it is definitely much harder work than giving a pre-set task with a pre-determined answer. However, the outcomes and tangible benefits for those involved can be much more rewarding, have much greater impact and can have influence way beyond the initial project and its aims.
And so my moment… it was a collision of ideas and emotion. I received the (anonymous) reviewers’ comments from a collaborative, creative funding proposal. One loved the idea, the other just simply asked, “Who are these people?” Result: no funding and me questioning everything. Twenty miles away a colleague bumped into a young person who’d been involved in one of our projects years before. He thanked my colleague. He’d been chucked out of home and in a really low place when his teacher had got him involved. He said that because of the people he’d met and the discussions he’d had during the project, he’d felt confident enough to sign up for a college course and was now top of his class. Another amazing person! And the result of that… I will keep having those circular conversations where others are convinced that I’m just not letting them in on the secret.
¹ Standard Assessment Tests – in England, these are set for Year 2 (aged ~7) and Year 6 pupils (aged ~11).
Entry #5 by Dr Claire Price
In 2019, I got the chance to “throw a pot” on a potter’s wheel for the first time. It was something I had always wanted to do, but it was the first opportunity I’d ever had to do it. And while I sat there at the potter’s wheel, covered in clay (mud?) I realised that “throwing a pot” isn’t hugely different from protein overexpression. It sounds completely odd, but both things require feel and an almost sixth sense. When you are moulding the clay, how you hold your hands and the pressure you exert can completely change the way the clay reacts and ends up. This “alien” material becomes an extension of your body. When you do overexpression, especially using E. coli as the protein factory, you almost get a sixth sense as to whether the experiment has worked. A lot of that is down to the smell, but it is more that that. It’s intuitive. And when you break the cells, the pressure you exert can completely change the outcome of the experiment. Sound familiar? Until this moment, I had never thought about how organic science is. How there is an almost intuitive feel to it. How it is a part of you.
Dr Claire Price MRSB AMRSC
Centre for Cytochrome P450 Biodiversity
Entry #6 by Aditi Ghose
Messages about cancer can be conflicting. ‘Cancer cannot be prevented.’ ‘It is a death sentence.’ ‘It’s contagious.’ As part of our science-outreach activities, we had to address a group of children in palliative care. But instead of sticking to our routine demonstrations, we wanted to show how them how cancer is being challenged by science today – we wanted to tell them of the Pan-Cancer Analysis of Whole Genomes (PCAWG) Project.
Featuring a cast of more than 1300 scientists and clinicians with 744 affiliations between them, across four continents, analyzing 2658 whole genomes for 38 types of cancer, the PCAWG Project had revealed, in a suite of six research papers, the most complete picture (yet) of how DNA glitches drive tumour cell growth. It had identified the driver mutations — that powered the typical shattering and rearrangement of cells in tumor growths. This implied that patients diagnosed with those hallmark mutations will, in principle, be matched to a drug that targets the protein made by that driver gene. Another paper revealed that these mutations cropped up years or decades before the actual cancers were diagnosed. Detecting such anomalies suggested that many could be detected and treated earlier now. It was only fair that the findings and implications of this gargantuan scientific endeavor be put forward to children like our audience, who hope and pray for such miracles day in and day out. All that was left to do was figure out how.
Poring over the original papers, I realised the research findings were basically a heat-map – identifying the causal regions responsible for the genetic aberrations. A similar heat-map, for an entirely different purpose, was devised in 1914. It was the First World War and the number of bomber-planes that made it home was central to deciding the outcome of the war. To turn the odds in their favour, researchers from the Center for Naval Analyses had devised a simple card containing the outline of the bomber-plane, to be handed over to the returning pilots, to mark out the areas where the plane had taken a hit. Stacking up such cards would lead to a heat-map indicating where the planes were receiving the most damage.
It turned out that these regions included the centre along the tail-gunner and edges along the wings. These were the most resilient parts of the plane – they had managed to return home, hole and all. The parts that were left unscathed in the cardboard – the cockpit and the fuselage – warranted a layer of protective-cladding. Planes that had been hit in those areas were lost forever.
Taking the missing planes into account was seminal to the contemporary discipline of operational research. Similarly, identifying the driver mutations in each cancer cell today is going to be decisive in developing precision medicine, tailored to understand cancer better. We decided to tell the data-intensive story of the latter while demonstrating the heat-map on paper gliders, hoping to provide the air beneath the wings of all fighters.
(Excerpt from the author’s essay ‘Mapping the Malady of Cancer’, published at http://blogs.nature.com/indigenus/2020/05/mapping-the-malady-of-cancer.html)
Entry #7 by Laura Guertin
I HeART Earth Science
The online community platform Lifeology hosted a science communication challenge with the theme creativity in science. As I started reflecting upon the role of creativity in my position as a scientist and educator, I realized that my creativity is rooted in my passion for communicating science, and that passion comes from my
This quilt I’ve titled I HeART Earth Science. It represents both my identity as an Earth scientist and the creative way I communicate science. The big read heart in the middle represents not just my heart for my work and where my creativity originates, but Planet Earth. The green and blue batik fabrics around the heart represent land and water, the Earth systems of hydrosphere, biosphere, atmosphere, and lithosphere – the complex systems that interact with each other and provide the foundation for the living and non-living components of our environments.
The border fabric is various dark blues with gold specs. To me, this fabric represents both the ocean twilight zone with flashes of bioluminescence, and it represents the stars we see in our galaxy and beyond. In a way, the big red heart is the pale blue dot that is the home of creativity and imagination, the foundation of scientific research and discovery, where questions are asked and solutions are achieved, ranging from the most simple to incredibly-complex challenges we face.
So if I go back to the question asked in the Lifeology science communication challenge – to describe a time when creativity, imagination or subconscious thought was important to my scientific or artistic work…. This quilt is my response, because these characteristics are within me, define me, and are around me at all times. This quilt is a perfect example of stitching together my science and creative sides, to make me the Earth scientist and communicator I am today.
Laura Guertin is a Professor of Earth Science at Penn State Brandywine in Media, PA. She uses quilts as a way to share science stories and engage with audiences. To view her science quilt collection, visit: https://journeysofdrg.org/tag/sciquilt/