Last updated April 21, 2017 at 5:26 pm
Personal experience has shown Daniel Oldfield that pairing the creativity of art with the application of science can be a powerful force.
I’ve learned as a microscopist that art can be a great tool for communicating science, technology, engineering and maths because of its capacity to engage and inspire. Even professionals working at research frontiers can benefit from artistic endeavours providing new insights and stimulating further understanding. And so there is a growing focus in education to combine the creative arts with STEM to deliver innovation.
When art meets science
In my own work, at the RMIT Microscopy and Microanalysis Facility (RMMF), in Melbourne, I often operate at the junction of science and art. As a microscopist, I’m employed to maintain and supervise the use of microscopy equipment by PhD students, professors, industry researchers and other clientele. And while the images I capture provide real insight to biological and other structures, they also attract attention because they reveal the beauty and artistry of form and function in an otherwise hidden world.
Daniel Oldfield’s Bee Wing image was captured using a scanning electron microscope (SEM). As SEMs operate under high vacuum it is vital to dehydrate biological samples like this to prevent ‘outgassing’. Before imaging, the bee wing was coated in a conductive layer of gold, which minimises charging and reduces thermal damage. Image courtesy of Daniel Oldfield.
The RMMF operates a variety of different types of microscopes: optical, electron and atomic force microscopes. I specialise in the use of scanning electron microscopes (SEMs), which work in a similar way to optical microscopes but instead of using visible light and glass lenses, use an electron beam and lenses created by magnetic fields.
Because the wavelength of an electron is much smaller than that of visible light, an SEM can resolve features less than 1nm. I have used SEMs to study a variety of samples, including fossils, insects and plants. To share the images I take in the laboratory, I have created an online profile, The Microscopist. And through social media I’ve created a visual portfolio that not only showcases my abilities as a microscopist but also provides a medium for other scientists to share their work with the public.
My work as a microscopist has also brought me into contact with a variety of other people operating at the intersection of science and art. For example at Uprosa, a company based in England, science and art combine to present complicated research through image-based products. This company, which was created by Cambridge and Oxford students, now works with researchers from top institutes across the world to produce a catalogue of smartphone and laptop cases that feature real microscopy images.
Dr Scott Camazine – a research biologist, physician, photographer and medical illustrator at Harvard University – is one scientist collaborating on the project. Another is University of London research assistant Dr Ngoc Lu-Nguyen, who is interested in using gene therapy to treat neuromuscular diseases such as Parkinson’s. The researchers and their work benefit through a 15% commission on each sale through Uprosa. At the same time, with the support of scientists around the world, Uprosa is helping spread an appreciation for scientific imagery into mainstream culture.
Holly Renee, from California-based company Shenova, produces dresses that have been inspired by women working in STEM. Included in Shenova’s diverse range of dresses on offer is one with a double helix print. This was inspired by Holly’s mother who worked in genetics and often showed her daughter DNA analysis reports when she was a child. Holly also describes the dress as a fitting tribute to early-20th century X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin. This ground-breaking scientist is considered by many to have been an unsung hero for the major role she played in determining the molecular structure of DNA.
Holly Renee models her Mars Terraform dress and behind is her Fibonacci Sequence Dress. Image courtesy of sugargamers.com
Another dress in the Shenova collection celebrates the recent discovery of gravitational waves by detectors at LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, in the United States). And another – my personal favourite – is a dress that sports a NASA image of Jupiter’s gaseous atmosphere. Through her company, Holly is both empowering women working in STEM and motivating a public conversation around science.
Science by design
Melbourne-based designer Leah Heiss is another person combining art and science in her creations. She is collaborating with experts in a range of disciplines, from nanotechnology through to manufacturing. Leah has worked on a host of projects, from a programmable hearing aid to jewellery capable of treating diabetes. By using an array of micro-needles, the diabetes jewellery replaces the need for insulin delivery by syringe. Leah’s work proves that incorporating cutting-edge science with art can lead to the production of visually attractive medical devices free of commonly held social stigmas.
Drift, by designer Leah Heiss, comprises interactive pulsing pods that investigate social behaviours. Below that is Citrus Ocean, one of the smartphone cases produced by UK-based company Uprosa showing microscope images. Image courtesy of Mark Ashkanasy, RMIT.
When it comes to understanding the complex world of fluid dynamics and its application in science and engineering, high-speed photography can be useful. It can capture images that help to visually represent the laws of physics that come into play as fluids move. And there’s no doubt those images can be particularly evocative in an artistically creative way.
“High-speed photography crosses the chasm that sometimes separates art and science, showing us the intrinsic beauty that exists in the order of nature,” explains Phred Petersen, a senior lecturer in the Bachelor of Arts Photography program at RMIT University, in Melbourne. High-speed photographs by Phred that capture the wing action of a locust in a wind tunnel clearly demonstrate the link between science and nature’s beauty. Meanwhile, the research has provided insights into the design of micro air vehicles – also known as MAVs or drones – that can be used for commercial, research, government and military applications.
The centre of an Arctotis flower from the author’s garden looks like puffy pink pillows, in an SEM image. Image courtesy of Daniel Oldfield.
In line with the belief that scientific research and design can benefit from the influence of art, most Australian universities are allowing greater flexibility to build double degree options that tap into both science and art subjects. And that includes areas that would be more traditionally associated with the creative arts. The University of NSW is one that goes even further by specifically offering a Bachelor of Fine Arts/Science dual degree that “supports the collaboration between the arts and sciences… [and] enables students to complete a Major sequence from those available in the Bachelor of Science and complete a Bachelor of Fine Arts, where students can study a wide range of fine art, design and media art disciplines.”
It all shows a growing realisation that you don’t need to choose between the arts and science. You truly can do both.
Originally published in Ultimate Careers magazine. Read the magazine and find your Ultimate Careers here.