What do preserved specimens, radiology and art all have in common?
Each is an integral component of the Making Science Visible class offered by the Stamps School of Art & Design. The course is directed towards students interested in the ways in which art and science intersect, such as in medical and science illustration.
Students go to the University’s Museum of Zoology, where curators give them access to their collections. As the students familiarize themselves with the different specimen, they also choose one to “adopt” for the semester. Their options range from mollusks to insects, mammals to reptiles and everything in between.
Dr. Brad Smith, who has a joint appointment as a professor in both the Stamps School of Art & Design and in the Department of Radiology at the Medical School, spearheads this course.
“My own background inspired this class,” said Smith. “I’m interested in joining the disciplines and sharing it with my students and to see the consequences of that.”
Smith asks his students to take a biological specimen or subject and interpret it in five diverse depictions: direct observation, photography, radiology, conceptual illustration and emotional response.
Art & Design junior Sidney Krandall chose a praying mantis as the subject of her five depictions.
“I chose to photograph the anterior/posterior head and neck in a portrait fashion,” Krandall explained. “The praying mantis has been personified throughout history due to its unique ability to rotate its head. I was fascinated by the human-like qualities the head and neck gave the mantis, in addition to the beautiful complexity of the associated anatomical structures.”
In direct observation, students implement different lighting and angles to create an accurate sketch or drawing.
In photography, students use a camera to document their specimen using different lenses, placement, lighting, as well as determining what sort of environment the specimen should be placed in.
For the radiology depiction, Smith’s colleagues in the radiology department allow the class to come in and use mammography to gaze into the specimen. Smith said this aspect allows students to begin to see things the eye cannot.
For conceptual illustration, students use knowledge gained through study about their specimen to understand their subject. It could involve molecular biology, the evolutionary history and the behavior of the animal.
Krandall said the fifth depiction allows students to create an emotional response to their specimen using a medium of their choice.
She developed an embossed paper pamphlet that depicted the mantis with a description in braille.
“I came up with a design that would allow blind populations to appreciate the beauty of a specimen in a museum setting,” Krandall said. “Too often, specimen and other forms of museum information are hidden from blind populations behind smooth glass displays. I designed the pamphlets to be small and beautiful enough that they would have a jewel-like feel to both blind and sighted people.”
Smith’s goal for his students is two-pronged: he hopes his students gain a well-rounded understanding of their specimen, but what he truly wants students to take away from the course is the idea that the tools and approach they take to represent their subjects has a dramatic effect on what story is told about their specimens. Smith says each depiction tells a different story about the subject, which is why students in this class are instructed to view their specimen in a variety of ways.
At the end of the course, Smith said his students look back on their five depictions and see how different the stories are. Some may consider the role art plays in the scientific world. According to Smith, art opens up a new avenue of thought for scientific discovery and approach.
“I’ve spent all my life doing both visual arts and science research,” Smith said. “For me, it’s been a lifelong pursuit.”