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.
Hideo Mabuchi, professor of applied physics
Hideo Mabuchi grew up in a culture that values traditional craft and began collecting it himself during his travels. So, although he began making ceramics on “a bit of a whim,” it was another way of engaging with what he’d long appreciated. As for being a physicist to boot, Mabuchi has always had broad interests.
“I remember going to college thinking maybe I would do economics or aeronautical engineering, and I had a period of deep interest in linguistics and philosophy,” he said. “In the end, I really liked the activity and community I found in physics.”
Getting into wood-firing solidified Mabuchi’s devotion to ceramics. Intrigued by the transformation of uniform, bare clay into a riot of colors and textures, he has made many hundreds of wood-fired pieces, built his own blown-ash kiln on campus and studied the physical and chemical process of wood-firing using electron microscopes at the Stanford Nano Shared Facilities. He has recently curated several displays at Stanford, including a gallery of his electron microscope images and an exhibition of East Asian ceramics. During his residency at the Haystack Mountain School of Craft two years ago, Mabuchi started loom weaving. Some of his recent work combines clay and textiles.
For undergraduates, Mabuchi teaches a course on ceramics, physics and the creative process. He feels that teaching at this intersection is an opportunity for him to contemplate broader questions about “meaning and meaning-making,” while also showing students that science and art aren’t mutually exclusive.
“It’s very natural to have interests both in artistic pursuits and in scientific ones,” he said. “And it’s great for those of us in the sciences, engineering, math who are interested in pursuing art to make ourselves visible to our students … to provide a role model of that and to give each other permission to do that.”
Mabuchi is also a member of the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute.
Kalanit Grill-Spector, professor of psychology
Painting and drawing were always a part of Kalanit Grill-Spector’s childhood. But it wasn’t until college, when she was looking for a mental escape from her engineering classes, that she began taking formal art classes. “I really enjoyed the intellectual part of engineering but I needed a more creative outlet,” she said. She continued taking art classes throughout her undergraduate and graduate education.
With bold colors and thick lines, Grill-Spector paints vivid images of people, animals and scenes. She describes her art as expressionism. “I don’t try to be precise. It’s more emotional and helps my mind both wander and concentrate,” she said.
Grill-Spector was originally intent on becoming an engineer but found she was more interested in computations. She shifted her focus to computer vision, which then led her to neurobiology, where she ended up modeling the brain using her computer skills. Now, as a cognitive neuroscientist, professor of psychology and member of the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute at Stanford and Stanford Bio-X, she studies how visual recognition works. “I think I have a really good visual understanding of things, and that’s why I like painting and why I like studying vision,” she said.
Grill-Spector finds there is a clear relationship between understanding art and being able to communicate science effectively. “Having good visuals really helps convey ideas and information in a clear way – it’s a really good way to get people to understand your idea,” she explained. This is one of the reasons she incorporates an art project into the curriculum for her undergraduate class, Introduction to Perception. For their final assignment, students build or draw an illusion. Grill-Spector said she enjoys witnessing the creativity of her students and seeing how they relate art and science. “They’re both really creative processes,” she said.
By Kimberly Hickok
Alice Lay, graduate student in applied physics
As a young girl, Alice Lay would find ways to incorporate an element of crafting into her class assignments. “I was always the one who would do more than the teacher asked,” she said. She once purchased an expensive wood burner just to create designs on an art piece she wanted to incorporate into her history class project.
Lay returned to her artistic roots as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley to make personalized thank-you cards for her professors. She enjoyed making the cards so much that now, as a graduate student in Jennifer Dionne’s lab, she continues the practice for members of her research group – but she’s taken it up a notch.
“Now, as I work on them, I get more and more crazy ideas like, I can make this flip up or this light up,” she said. Recently she incorporated tiny electronic LED bulbs that light up on the card when you press three small buttons. For another card, she wrote hidden messages in invisible ink.
While creating cards is her main artistic medium, she enjoys finding creative ways to make her scientific data more visually appealing. “I find that to be really nice because I can use my artistic skills for my papers and my presentations, and be creative on that point,” she said.
But crafting cards also serves as an escape from her science career, she said. When experiments are failing and troubleshooting isn’t working, she feels stuck and frustrated. “But my cards are feasible,” she said. “The mechanics aren’t very complicated so I feel like whatever I can think of is doable.”
Every card she makes is unique to the person she’s making it for. She includes things like an image of the person in a favorite outfit and references to inside jokes. “It’s always fun to incorporate those because I think it’s so much more personal,” she said. “And it’s my way of thanking them for influencing my life.”
By Kimberly Hickok
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, 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 Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute.
Vivian Wang, BS ’17, electrical engineering
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 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.
As a recipient of the Churchill Scholarship, Wang is working on a master’s of philosophy degree in physics at the University of Cambridge. 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, 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, BS ’18, Earth systems; BA ’18, 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.”
As an Earth systems major, Fischer focused on human experience and how those narratives, particularly those of low-income communities and communities of color, are often ignored in Earth systems research.
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.”
Annie Hu, BS ’17, biology
Karen Huynh, BS ’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 were the leaders of the 2016-2017 Chinese Dance group. 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, dancing is an opportunity to learn about and experiment with physical expression. 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. “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 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.
Riley Suhar, graduate student in materials science
For Riley 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,” she said.
Working in digital painting, photography and graphite, much of her inspiration comes from gaming art. From a young age she 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 her 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, she worked on metal alloys and hoped to eventually apply that to advanced prosthetics in graduate school. But, told she was lacking the proper biomaterials background, she nearly gave up. Suhar was readying herself for a Peace Corps assignment in Zambia when the Heilshorn lab at Stanford invited her to join. Suhar is now working on a project where she 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,” she said.