In Rembrandt’s painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, inquisitive doctors in ruffled, white collars and goatees lean over a cadaver lit in the soft focus of the painter’s signature light.

A print of this piece of interwoven science and art is perhaps nowhere better placed than where it hangs above the desk of Melissa Gross, associate professor of movement science, in the Central Campus Recreation Building.

“I’m really drawn to the edges,” she said. “To the in-betweens. That’s where I feel comfortable.”

Recently honored with an Arthur F. Thurnau professorship, Gross has appointments in both the School of Kinesiology and the School of Art & Design. In her Behavioral Biomechanics Laboratory, she uses motion capture animation to quantify the way movement changes when emotion does. This line of questioning means her research reaches across and pulls from psychology, technology, art, physics and movement science.

Thurnau professors are honored for their exceptional undergraduate teaching and innovation. The award comes with $20,000 as well.

After finishing her Ph.D. at the University of California, Los Angeles, Gross worked as a research scientist at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Palo Alto before coming to the University in 1991. In Ann Arbor, she continued to work across disciplines, collaborating with Andy Kirshner, associate professor at the School of Art & Design and the School of Music, to teach an interdisciplinary course. Art & Design and Kinesiology students worked together to make motion capture animations to answer research questions.

“She’s really good at modeling curiosity for her students,” Kirshner said. “In this class students were designing experiments that nobody really knew the answer to. I mean, Melissa didn’t know the answer to, I didn’t know that answer to and neither did the students, so it felt like it was genuine research.”

After the course with Kirshner ended, Gross decided to learn the animation software herself so she could continue teaching a similar course through the School of Kinesiology.

On Wednesday, she was still in the Duderstadt Center’s 3D lab at 5 p.m., even though her “Motion Capture and Animation for Biomechanics” class had ended half an hour earlier. A handful of students were still clustered around the computers, talking in numbers and equations. On their screens, what looked like characters from a video game walked across the gridded animation software.

Gross’ goal is for students to see the science they have been studying. Students are asked to be creative, to choose camera angles, to learn software they probably have not used before and to really look at what they are making.

“So often in movement science the end result is the number,” she said. “You never get to see what the numbers mean.”

Using these numbers to make an animation means students are going back and forth between graphs and visuals, so they can see exactly how small changes in data play out in the actual movement.

“Melissa’s genius is in recognizing that teaching and learning don’t happen if curiosity isn’t present,” said Linda Kendall Knox, the Duderstadt Center’s learning design librarian, who has worked with Gross since her first foray into using animation as a teaching tool in 1995. “She just can’t help but share her curiosity about the world with her students.”

Gross also teaches “Human Musculoskeletal Anatomy,” a course that has strict guidelines about what must be covered by the end of the semester. But she still pulls from different disciplines to teach. An extra credit project asks students to visit the University of Michigan Museum of Art to critique anatomical drawings from the 18th century.

“She understood that you can use a lot of different lenses to look at the same problem,” Kirshner said. “I think that’s part of what was so stimulating about teaching with her, is that ability to kind of make connections across fields.”

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