Aspiring Scientists Get in Touch with Their Artistic Side

Posted: August 29, 2011 at 1:01 am, Last Updated: August 30, 2011 at 5:09 pm

By Lea Lubag

computer science art project

One of the student art projects, which was created using 100,000 colored, warped words that represent data from text mining with neural networks. Photo courtesy of ASSIP

For most, being told to “imagine your research” would seem like a foreign and contradictory concept, but this is exactly the challenge sculptor Rebecca Kamen posed to a group of 48 high school juniors and seniors and college undergraduates who participated in Mason’s Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program (ASSIP).

“Learning tends to be passive. The more you can engage your senses, the more impact it has on learning,” says Kamen, an art professor at Northern Virginia Community College for more than 30 years who has previously presented at Mason.

Through ASSIP, students spend eight 40-hour weeks working alongside the university’s researchers to engage in cutting-edge scientific research related to proteomics, metabolomics, genomics, nanotechnology, neuroscience, biochemistry, infectious disease, biodefense, bioinformatics, physics and environmental science. In addition to their science project this year, the students were challenged to create a work of art that represented a facet of their research.

“The best part is that it ignites creativity and stimulates students to think outside the box,” says ASSIP Director Amy VanMeter.

Students could choose to work individually or in groups, and some combined multiple research topics within a single art project.

A group of high school students working in computer science created a facial image using colored, warped words. The words represent data from text mining with neural networks, and the image is composed of approximately 100,000 letters.

One student built an abstract sculpture expressing the complex instrumentation she worked with this summer, while a group of four students wrote lyrics to a song and recorded it to describe the experiments they used to study disease. These students reported that they believed the clinical research they engaged in this summer added a piece to the puzzle of finding a cure for diseases such as AIDS.

Students working in the laboratory of Mason neuroscientist Ted Dumas at the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study present their group art project, which depicts a hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for spatial memory. Photo courtesy of ASSIP

“The way that we make things visible is through imaging — imagining,” says Kamen, who emphasizes the need for research to be engaging and stimulating to the brain.

A common impression that each student shared was that this artistic experience encouraged their creativity and helped them to understand the science at a higher level.

While some may be skeptical about the connection between art and science, for Kamen, it’s her life’s work. In fact, it was substantial enough to land her the 2011-13 Chancellor’s Commonwealth Professorship from the Virginia Community College System to help further develop her work in bridging art and science.

“We express the information that we glean in very different ways,” Kamen says. “Objects are static, but what we’re trying to do is make the ideas they represent dynamic.”

She adds, “We look at things all the time, but we don’t always see them.”

The final art projects will be on display at the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond in 2012.

Kamen and VanMeter hope to incorporate the art component in ASSIP again next summer.

More information about ASSIP can be found on the website.





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