Science meets art at Stanford

Science and art are often regarded as distinct – either a person can’t be serious about both or an interest in one must relate somehow to work in the other. In reality, many scientists participate in and produce art at all levels and in every medium.

Here are just a few of these people – students and faculty – who study the sciences at Stanford University but also take part in the arts, both professionally and casually. From first-time dancers to life-long painters, these scientists give us a glimpse into the many ways science and art intersect.

Meredith Fields watercoloring
Image credit: Kurt Hickman

Meredith Fields, graduate student in chemical engineering

Like many people, Meredith Fields was introduced to art as a toddler. That was when she began drawing and working with watercolor – and she never stopped.

“Back when I was in school, I was always known as the ‘artistic kid’ and it really wasn’t until I got into college that I decided to even try science,” said Fields, a graduate student in chemical engineering at Stanford, who added papercut art to her repertoire in high school. “I wanted to do something that was practical but also I wanted to take the one chance I had at college to try my hand at something technical and become qualified at that.”

Fields’s first internship was at NASA designing aerogels for the thermal protection of space probes and other instruments. She then worked on battery technologies. As part of the Nørskov lab at Stanford, she currently uses computational models to assess the efficiency with which different catalysts assist chemical reactions.

Although Fields imagines possibly combining her art and her science in the future, she purposely engages in them separately for now.

“There have been phases of my life where I go in and out of art and, especially being a graduate student, it’s hard to manage your time in a way where you can continue to pursue art,” Fields said. “So, what art means to me has changed over time. Right now, it’s my stress release. It’s my way of thinking in a way that’s not math or equations.”

Fields said that the more she talks about her dual interests in art and science, the more she meets others who have similarly varied pursuits. Even for those who feel exclusively drawn to science, she encourages further exploration of art, believing that it touches everyone’s lives and there is something for everyone to appreciate in it.

Susan McConnell photographing a moose
Image credit: Tim Grams

Susan McConnell, professor of biology

As a child, Susan McConnell remembers rifling through National Geographic at her grandparents’ home and coming upon an article about Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee research in Tanzania. Goodall’s work looked exciting and exotic – and quite glamorous – and it opened up a world of possibilities for McConnell. “I became completely and romantically enamored with the idea of being out in Africa with wild animals,” recalled McConnell, a professor of biology at Stanford University. “I’d always been an animal-crazy kid, and the idea that you could study animals scientifically was what drew me into science.” That article eventually led to two careers for McConnell: one as a neurobiologist and another as a conservation photographer.

Her early efforts to study animal behavior in the laboratory led McConnell to focus on solving the fundamental mysteries of the genes and cellular mechanisms that form neural circuits, which are the underpinnings of all behavior. She was more tentative about pursuing photography until a moment in 2005, when she was photographing a polar bear jumping across ice floes in the Arctic north of Norway. Although she was freezing cold, she realized that it was the happiest she had ever been.

“In wildlife photography, there are often hours of just sitting and waiting. Then, all of the sudden, two, three herds of elephants come to a watering hole and you have two cameras out and everything is happening,” said McConnell. “Those moments where everything comes together, the moments that make an image really special, are very rare.”

In addition to her biology classes, McConnell teaches an IntroSem on conservation photography and runs a year-long capstone project where seniors in the natural sciences express science through art. She was also the first non-art faculty member to have a show – on elephants and the ivory crisis – in the Stanford Art Gallery.

And, like Goodall, her work has been featured within the pages of National Geographic.

McConnell is also a member of Bio-X and the Stanford Neurosciences Institute.

Vivian Wang and her art
Image credit: L.A. Cicero

Vivian Wang, electrical engineering BS ’17 with a minor in math

Although Vivian Wang has long enjoyed making art in her free time, she nearly missed her chance to take advantage of Stanford’s art course offerings. “I felt like I’d been taking too many engineering and math classes, so I decided I should take at least one art class before I graduated!” she said. She took a digital printmaking class, and has since had work from that course accepted to the Bridge conference, an international effort to highlight math within other disciplines. Previously, Wang’s beaded art sculptures were featured in the 2015 and 2016 conferences.

One of the pieces featured in this year’s conference is a latticed, curving combination of two prints depicting famous mathematicians. From one side, you see the face of David Hilbert –  from the other, that of Wacław Sierpiński. The form of Wang’s Faces of Hilbert and Sierpiński could serve as an analogy for her love of both science and art. These passions sometimes overlap. But even when they don’t, they strike a certain harmony. “My art isn’t always necessarily a visualization of science, but it’s a skill that is very complementary to what I do in the sciences,” Wang said.

In both art and science, she finds joy in experimentation. She sees research as an opportunity to unearth, shape and reshape knowledge through discovery and analysis, while art offers her restorative lessons in embracing mistakes and disorder.

Wang graduated this year and, as recipient of the Churchill Scholarship, is now at the University of Cambridge working on a master’s of philosophy degree in physics. After that, she plans to return to the United States to earn a doctorate in electrical engineering. Wang also thinks she’ll continue exploring new art forms, and is already experimenting with pottery and sketching.

Parag Mallick performing
Image credit: Kurt Hickman

Parag Mallick, associate professor of radiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine

Parag Mallick’s love for magic started with simple toys, the kind you can buy at a convenience store. He then picked up juggling in college, which he calls “a gateway drug to the circus arts.” Through lessons at the legendary Magic Castle during graduate school in Los Angeles, Mallick developed his skills as professional performer.

And he was doing all of this while working toward becoming an astronaut.

“I got into my specific area of research because I wanted to understand how human physiology works and, in particular, what happens to people on the ground and in space,” said Mallick, now an associate professor of radiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, focusing on systems biology, personalized medicine and cancer diagnostics. “Being a Stanford professor was kind of my back-up plan.”

For years, Mallick kept his two worlds completely separate, concerned that other performers would question his dedication to his craft and that scientists wouldn’t take him – or his research – seriously. It’s only recently that he’s unified his dual life. The change has been overwhelmingly positive. “Being able to talk about magic openly and being able to discuss concepts from magic in science – like the fundamentals of perception and misperception and how that might influence our ability to draw conclusions from data – I think it’s really made me both a better scientist and a better magician,” he said.

Close-up magic, like the Three Card Monte trick, are Mallick’s specialty. He loves the intimate, shared experience of these performances and their dependence on meticulousness, a talent he applies to his science and his art. Both passions have also refined Mallick’s skills as storyteller, communicator and performer. Whether he’s juggling machetes or teaching his students about bioinformatics, Mallick hopes to encourage people to try out new perspectives and embrace their sense of wonder.

Mallick is a member of The Canary Center @ Stanford for Cancer Early Detection,  Stanford Bio-X, the Stanford Cancer Institute and a faculty fellow of Stanford ChEM-H.

Stephanie Fischer composing
(Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Stephanie Fischer ’18, double majoring in Earth systems and music composition

Stephanie Fischer has been singing for longer than she can remember. “Even before I could talk, I was singing something in some kind of language,” she said.

A veteran of the stage, she considered minoring in performance at Stanford but fell in love with the challenges and opportunities of composition. “It’s a new way to articulate my ideas through a medium that’s different from speaking with someone or performing someone else’s music,” she said. “It’d also be lovely to be an example that other people who look like me, women and people of color, can compose if they want to.”

Fischer also pursued Earth systems studies before Stanford. She was originally involved in paleoclimatology research but her interests shifted when, in 2012, Superstorm Sandy destroyed much of her family’s home in Long Island.

“That experience reminded me that changes in the climate are not confined to a thousand years ago, that these processes that cause mass extinctions aren’t something that’s removed from the present day,” Fischer said. “It’s something that can happen now and in a very personal way … just like how it affected my family, as well as many other families.”

In this major, Fischer focuses on human experience and how those narratives, particularly those of low-income communities and communities of color, are often ignored in Earth systems research. She is considering a career in science communication after Stanford.

People often ask Fischer how she “switches brains” between the arts and the sciences – a concept she once believed. “It was a little hard going through the day, feeling like I was bouncing between two minds,” she said. “It got better once I realized that there’s no concrete divide. It’s just a different way to look at the same thing, and together you get a more nuanced approach to solving problems.”

2016-17 Stanford Chinese Dance
Image credit: Hai Yan Jackson

Annie Hu, ’17 major in biology

Karen Huynh, ’18 electrical engineering

Ariel Liu ’19 major in product design

Unlike most dance groups at Stanford, Chinese Dance requires no prior experience, no auditions. That is what drew Annie Hu, Karen Huynh and Ariel Lu to the troupe. “Growing up, I never had the chance to be involved in dance or any Chinese cultural activities,” Huynh said. “It was an opportunity to connect to my culture and learn more about dance.”

Hu, Huynh and Liu, the leaders of the 2016-2017 Chinese Dance group, are all three STEM majors. Hu has long been interested in microbiology and immunology, enthralled by the complex actions and reactions of microscopic organisms in the human body. Huynh become an electrical engineering major after learning about climate change and renewable energy in a Sophomore College course. Liu intended to major in biology but switched to product design after taking a mechanical engineering course on visual thinking. “I really like the mindset product designers have: using design thinking and engineering methods to break down the problems they face,” Liu said. “It’s really inspiring to think that you can do almost anything if you break it down.”

For all three students, dancing is an opportunity to learn about and experiment with physical expression, which contrasts with their day-to-day studies. It’s also a stress reliever. “There’s this stark difference between studying from a textbook and the creativity that comes with dancing and actually using your body,” said Hu, who this year is dancing with the Stanford Viennese Ball Opening Committee. “By the end of practice, I’m so focused on the choreography and my body that it takes my mind off other worries.”

The close bonds formed among these teams is another perk that keeps the students eager to meet up and work on their art. Hu, Huynh and Liu all plan to pursue careers in their majors but they also hope to continue dancing even after they leave Stanford.

Nick Suhar
Image credit: Nick Suhar

Nick Suhar, graduate student in materials science

For Nick Suhar, a graduate student at Stanford University, science and art are complementary pairs, rooted in the pursuit of understanding and connection between people.

“Science and art are linked for me in that they represent ways to frame the world and share that – in a very real way – with those around me, whether aesthetically or translationally,” he said.

Working in digital painting, photography and graphite, much of his inspiration comes from gaming art. From a young age he was mesmerized with how the art in games could build stories, stir emotions and establish entire universes through clever manipulations of light and color. Of his own work, Suhar’s favorite pieces are those that reach out to the viewer in a gripping, often emotional way.

“What I find so compelling about artwork is that it is a way for me to condense a lot of the things that I find beautiful or moving and share those with others,” Suhar said.

As an undergraduate, he worked on metal alloys and hoped to eventually apply that to advanced prosthetics in graduate school. But, told he was lacking the proper biomaterials background, he nearly gave up. Suhar was readying himself for a Peace Corps assignment in Zambia when the Heilshorn lab at Stanford invited him to join. Suhar is now working on a project where he leverages recombinant proteins to help with peripheral nerve repair.

“For me, studying science and performing research is no different than learning another language in that it enables to me communicate with more people – with the added benefit of being able to work on projects that may go to helping someone, somewhere,” he said.