Thursday, April 5, 2018

Science Art Wonder: Students team with labs to bring research to life

Art by Emory senior Pamela Romero, Science.Art.Wonder. founder and president, portrays how aphids can develop wings in response to environmental changes. The DNA painted along the edges of the canvases is the same, except that different genes are switched on. Photo by Ann Watson, Emory Photo/Video

By Carol Clark

A small crowd gathers in Emory’s White Hall before the menacing sight: Large rubber worms arrayed on triangular red spikes. The jagged spikes, from a few inches to more than a foot tall, lean crazily in all directions. Some of the worms — suspended on near-invisible fishing line — appear to rise off the spikes, escaping to a circular mirror hanging from above.

“This is how evolution works!” says Ethan Mock, a sophomore majoring in ancient history, who created the sculpture, titled "The Crucible." He looks dapper in a leather vest and tweed cap and speaks with theatrical flair to the crowd. “The spikes represent the trials and tribulations of the worms’ struggles. Most are trapped in the spikes but a few climb out, not realizing that they are simply climbing into a new trial, a new test.”

The onlookers include a mix of college students, children and their parents, brought together by campus events during the recent Atlanta Science Festival. Joining the regular attractions of Physics Live! and Chemistry Carnival is the debut of an art exhibit by a new, student-run program called Science.Art.Wonder., or S.A.W. Just over 100 artists — most of them untrained college students — teamed with scientists from Emory and Georgia Tech to translate their research into art.

Ethan Mock and his art, "The Crucible"
Mock worked with the lab of Levi Morran, an assistant professor in Emory’s Department of Biology who studies co-evolutionary dynamics by experimenting with a host (a microscopic worm called C. elegans) and a parasite (a bright red species of bacteria called Serratia marcescens that is lethal to C. elegans upon consumption).

“This is so cool!” says Pareena Sharma, a first-year biochemistry major at Emory, as she snaps a photo of the sculpture. “It’s so relatable to me. I’ve been doing this same experiment since the first of the semester in Biology 142.”

Two young boys draw near the spikes. “Look up into the mirror,” Mock encourages them. “Now tell me what you see.”

“The same thing,” one of the boys replies.

“That’s right!” Mock says. “The process of evolution keeps repeating, going in a loop.”

Morran, arriving with his eight-year-old daughter, Maggie, is impressed. “You could see the light come on in those boys’ eyes,” he says. “They understood what Ethan is trying to convey. And it’s not an easy concept to grasp — the continual evolutionary struggle.”

Both artists and researchers engage with visitors as they peruse more than 140 works of art, set up on the Quad, in White Hall, the Math and Science Center and the Atwood Chemistry Center during the festival.

“This artwork gives you a snapshot of how much research is being done in Atlanta. I’m taken aback by how cutting edge and varied it is,” says Pamela Romero, president of S.A.W. The program is the brainchild of Romero, a senior majoring in neuroscience and behavioral biology and minoring in computer science.

Young visitors to the Emory campus peruse science-inspired art on the Quad. Photo by Ann Watson, Emory Photo/Video

The Emory S.A.W. contributions span labs across the University and beyond. The artists picked their mediums, from acrylic to watercolor and everything in between.

Emily Isaac, a first-year Emory student majoring in environmental sciences and theater, stands on the Quad next to a large watercolor she painted. “Art can help scientists make a point without using any scientific jargon,” she says.

She teamed with Robert Wallace from Georgia Tech’s Agricultural Technology Research Program. One of Wallace’s projects gave plots of farmland to women in India who had been victims of an acid attack. Isaac did a portrait of a woman with a scarred face. The woman’s head is partially wrapped in strips of bandages that Isaac painted to look like rows of newly sprouting plants. “I wanted to show hope, and how connecting with the environment can help people,” Isaac says.

This year’s 36 Emory S.A.W. artists are mainly undergraduates — many of them science majors — but they also include a few graduate students, faculty and staff members. Georgia Tech makes up the bulk of other contributing artists and researchers in this year’s S.A.W., although 10 independent artists also got involved, along with Georgia State University undergraduates and the Atlanta campus of SCAD.

“S.A.W. is collaborative, not only across disciplines and institutions, but also across students, faculty, staff and members of the Atlanta community,” Romero says. “We even have one international artist, from Puerto Rico.”

A painting by Georgia Tech student Bianca Guerrero portrays a virtual reality game used to measure players' perception of time as well as eye movement. The art is based on research by Georgia Tech psychologist Malia Crane. Photo by Ann Watson, Emory Photo/Video.

As long as she can remember, everyone thought Romero would become an artist, or maybe an architect. She began taking art classes at the age of three in her home town of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. She continued making and studying art, developing a surrealist style.

In ninth grade, however, a psychology course sparked a fascination for neurobiology. Romero took online classes and started reading up on subjects like optogenetics and deep-brain stimulation.

By the time she was accepted to Emory, she had decided to forge a career as a scientist. “A lot of people told me that if I chose neuroscience I would have to forsake art, because I would be a bad scientist if I tried to do both,” she recalls. “I was determined to prove them wrong.”

Romero sought out kindred spirits like Nicole Gerardo, associate professor of biology, who also grew up with twin passions for science and art. Gerardo once had students create artwork using microbes in her lab under the direction of Nancy Lowe — a former lab technician at Emory who went on to create a retreat center in North Carolina called AS.IF: Art and Science in the Field.

Gerardo later paired students with labs to create ceramic representations of research under the direction of Diane Kempler, who formerly taught visual arts at Emory.

“Art provides a way to reach people who may be intimidated by science,” Gerardo says. “And working with an artist lets scientists see their own work in a different way. That could lead to new scientific approaches.”

When Romero first joined forces with Gerardo it was simply to produce art for her lab, which focuses on evolutionary ecology. “We were test subjects for S.A.W.,” Romero says.

Emory senior Maureen Ascona, a neuroscience and behavioral biology major, discusses her art with visitors to the Quad. Ascona teamed with Helen Mayberg, from the Emory School of Medicine, who uses deep-brain stimulation to help patients with treatment-resistant depression. Photo by Ann Watson, Emory Photo/Video.

One of the pieces Romero created consists of triangular canvases that can be shifted into different positions. The acrylic painting depicts how aphids develop wings in the presence of predators, like ladybugs, or if food becomes scarce. “When Dr. Gerardo explains her work to people, she can move the canvases to show how the aphids change in response to their environment,” Romero says.

Romero wanted to give other students the chance to enter research labs and experiment with art.

“Pamela is an amazing woman, a force of nature,” says Gerardo, who is the faculty mentor for S.A.W. “What she has done with the support of her fellow students is incredible. I had envisioned maybe 20 pairings of scientists and artists. I’m still surprised by how big it became.”

Connections from across the University helped S.A.W. grow. Wei Wei Chen and John Wang, student leaders of Emory Arts Underground, provided the platform for Romero to launch S.A.W. and encouraged her to form a charter, bylaws and an executive team. That team includes Emory undergraduates Alex Nazzari (vice-president), Aila Jiang, Veronica Paltaraskaya, Anne Pizzini, Deborah Seong and John Wang, along with Georgia Tech students Olivia Cox, Siyan Li and Iris Liu.

The students’ efforts paid off with S.A.W.’s smash debut at the Atlanta Science Festival.

“One of my favorite parts was guiding artists through the process of disentangling the science, reassuring them that they could do it,” Romero says. “Many of them felt overwhelmed after first talking to a scientist. Some of them were first-year students who hadn’t even had introductory biology or chemistry.”

A piece by Alice Yang, a first-year Emory student majoring in neuroscience and behavioral biology who teamed with researchers of human genetics in the Emory 3q29 Project. Photo courtesy of S.A.W.

Exploring a lab through an art project allows students to develop a relationship with a researcher and often find a mentor, Romero says.

Alice Yang, a first-year Emory student majoring in neuroscience and behavioral biology, teamed with Jennifer Mulle, assistant professor at Rollins School of Public Health. Mulle is co-principal investigator of the Emory 3q29 Project, which seeks to understand a genetic deletion associated with an increased risk for schizophrenia.

“I’m so grateful for the experience,” Yang says of spending time with the 3q29 Project team. “I learned what it’s like to actually do science. And I caught their passion. People are just now realizing how genetics can be involved in mental illness. It’s a very new field.”

To create her art pieces, Yang ordered special scratch-off paper from her native China. “This paper’s easy to work with and it’s great for showing patterns and textures,” she says. She explains how she carefully cut slices from the black top layer of the paper to reveal the glowing, rainbow colors beneath. Her pictures portray the nanomapping of fluorescent-labeled alleles from the 3q29 lab while also paying tribute to Salvador Dali’s surrealism.

Even those who are not aspiring scientists can catch the science-art bug. Independent artist Aaron Artrip teamed with scientists Matthew Jackson and Dan Cook at Georgia Tech to demonstrate interaction with sound. A group of children buzzes around Artrip’s exhibit in White Hall. A piece of paper sprinkled with powdered black ink is taped to a wooden speaker, which is plugged into an electronic synthesizer. As Artrip taps a keyboard, the powder moves across the page, creating patterns.

“I’m making drawings with vibrations. Forcing sound through the ink causes it to move,” he explains.

“Would you like to try?” he asks a young girl watching him.

She doesn’t have to be asked twice.

A painting by Georgia Tech student Kate Bernart, "Connecting the Cycle," portrays Austin Ladshaw's research at Georgia Tech's School of Environmental Engineering on the nuclear fuel cycle and ways to prevent excessive accumulations of radioactive waste. Photo by Ann Watson, Emory Photo/Video

Ultimately, S.A.W. hopes to find ways to integrate its art-science model into grades K-12. “We would like to have artists and researchers go into K-12 classrooms to talk about the art and the research together,” Romero says.

She presented S.A.W. at the recent Georgia Tech STEAM Leadership Conference, which brought together educators and policymakers to explore new ways to teach science, technology, engineering, art and math, or STEAM. S.A.W. is now working to put together an anthology of its art into a booklet, to include descriptions of the science. The booklet will be aimed at high school students “to give them a glimpse of some of the possible fields available to them in college,” Romero says.

S.A.W. is also creating a web site where the art will be accessible in digital form, including videos of some of the interactive art pieces, along with other resources for K-12 teachers.

After graduating this spring, Romero plans to take a gap year, then go on to graduate school with the aim of becoming a professor with a research lab. “S.A.W. has an incredible executive team and I’m making sure that the program continues after I leave Emory,” she says. “I would also like to stay involved with it in some way.”

As she prepares for graduation, Romero is working on an art narrative piece funded by the Emory Center for Creativity and Arts. The work will combine acrylic painting and sculpture to represent the element Vanadium, discovered by Mexican mineralogist Andrews Manuel del Rio in 1801. A series of circular canvases will each represent an atom in Vanadium. Each canvas will also represent a country or group of countries in Latin America, on which Romero will depict the research of a scientist from that area.

“My main goal with this piece is to celebrate and encourage more Latin American science,” Romero says. She is calling the piece “Elementally Latino,” to describe how Latinos are an elemental, or basic, part of science and how they also embody an elemental force. “Latinos are such a passionate people that I can only adequately describe them as a force of nature,” she says.

Related:

The art and science of symbiosis
Frankenstein and robots rise up for Atlanta Science Festival