I’m a scientist, so I’m sensitive about my data: The creativity within STEM


“The Neuron”.  Artwork by Mental Traffic

Written By Dr. Erika E. Alexander

Sometimes I think about the moment I decided studying science was for me. I was a freshman in college. It wasn’t because I particularly liked math or analyzing data, or being cooped up in a science lab all day/night (because that’s what scientists were to me, then). At the time I was a Psychology major, because I had done well in high school classes and found it mildly interesting. I was in the honors program, and most of my friends just so happened to be high-achieving Biology majors. They were already taking major classes, including BIO 101. One day, in between doing my homework, I was flipping through my friend’s textbook. I became amazed at what I was reading. The images I saw of life and all of its creatures, the complex problems, and elegant solutions inspired in me such a sense of wonder. I wanted more. I wanted to create. So I began down a path which has led me, ironically, in a full circle (more on that in another post).

As I continued my pursuit of scientific exploration in graduate school, I became aware of certain patterns (and I’ve always loved patterns) in the people around me. I found that many of my brilliant researcher friends also had creative side. I know people who have published in Nature and PNAS, who take photos that would make you weep. I’ve been to physics conferences where one of the featured events was a musical jam session by my fellow scientists. I know a brilliant computer programmer that plays a mean trumpet. I’ve attended art shows with works showcasing brilliantly colorful confocal imaging of cells and cellular organization, close up images of spider eyes and bird wings, and hand drawn illustrations of a neuron.

I also love to create beautiful things. From coasters/home scents, to all natural beauty products, to cooking and baking for loved ones, to imaging hair cells on the confocal. If I am creating, I’m happy. I’ve always been inspired by images, and photography is also a secret love of mine, one that I hope to learn more about in the near future. I find many things in the world inspiring, including my science and the images it produces. I suspect many of my friends feel the same way. I have friends who are talented dancers, sculptors and interior designers, who put on a lab coat and gloves at work everyday. My friends paint, sing, write poetry and blogs, and can tell you exactly what elements and compounds are contained within a sample just by looking at spikes on a computer screen.  They can record individual neurons as they communicate with other cells, and grow plants that glow in the dark. Artists.

I say all of this, because I wonder if this pattern of great science and great creativity is connected. Nathan Alexander talked about the policy push towards adding an A for Art into the STEM acronym (to create STEAM) to appeal to a more diverse group of students. Separation of science and art is taught to us early. When I was in elementary school, the same teacher who taught us History, English, and Math, also taught Science in the same room. Meanwhile, an entirely different teacher taught Art in a different classroom, in a different part of the building. There were no connections to STEM subjects, or suggestions that a career in art is something that those who like science should pursue.

Society views artists as free, wild, and complicated, while scientists are analytical, data-driven, and socially awkward. Artists create art and poetry and scientists use lasers and build killer robots. At first glance, they could not be farther apart on the spectrum of humanity. But, then why are so many creatives drawn towards STEM careers? Is it just that scientific research is so stressful, with all of it’s pitfalls, politics, and potential failures, that a creative outlet is a distraction required to survive?

Or, is science in its essential form creativity? Does it not require skill and a sometimes slavish dedication to craft? Can creative inspiration by other artists or muses be likened to the genesis of new experimental ideas and paradigms after talking with fellow scientists about their research? Does attention to detail and seemingly unrelated factors play an important role in both the evolution of art and science? Are a sculptor and an engineer simply creating different pieces of art? Can there be true artistic beauty in a high-resolution image of the cellular organization of auditory sensory cells?

I got into science because I saw it as a creative endeavor, a chance to carve out my path and to use my skills to create new understanding of the world around me. In my mind, art, is a way of communicating about life, sharing with the world all of its wonders and it’s dark, scary places. To me, the two subjects aren’t so very different. So maybe it’s time for a more nuanced view of both professions. Maybe art and science can share the same room after all.

What do you think? Are there better ways to incorporate science into art classes and vice versa?  Should artistic ability be encouraged/developed in the budding scientist?