Collaborative projects probe intersection between arts, science

A graphic adaptation of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species has inspired a group of medical students and a fine arts graduate student at the University of Chicago to create an illustrated text about flu and flu vaccinations.

The students’ goal was to produce a fun and interesting yet scientifically accurate booklet of artistic value that addresses an important community health issue and which is geared toward adolescents and the general public.

It is one of five projects that were funded by the first round of Arts | Science Collaboration Grants issued last January with support from the Office of the Vice President for Research and for National Laboratories.

The students are seeking a commercial publisher for their booklet, but the grant funded the printing of 250 copies, which will be distributed to schools in the Woodlawn-Hyde Park neighborhoods and to the Gary Comer Youth Center on the South Side.

The collaboration grants stimulate direct dialogue between the arts and science by having teams of graduate students “work together to investigate a topic from the perspective of each discipline,” said Julie Marie Lemon, program manager of the Arts | Science Initiative

“How can two very different disciplines, the arts and the sciences, work together and maybe influence and enrich each other’s tools, methodologies and specific curiosities?” Lemon asked at a May 25 gathering at the Franke Institute for the Humanities, where four of the groups presented their projects. “That’s the question the Arts and Science Initiative seeks to actively pursue as we move forward into our second year.”

Graduate students interested in applying for an Arts | Science Collaboration Grant next academic year should contact Lemon for more information.

The Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts and the Office of the Provost announced the launch of the Arts | Science Initiative more than a year ago. “That initiative is very much tied to making sure that the incredible opportunities that exist when artists and scientists work together really become a part of the entire culture of the University in new and wonderful ways,” said William Michel, executive director of the Logan Center.

In all, five teams of 18 students from six disciplines received first-round collaborative grants. “I have to say I’m very proud of you,” Lemon told the students after their presentations.

Art for med students

This year’s collaborative grant projects included a team from the Pritzker School of Medicine and the Department of Visual Arts, which developed an elective class for UChicago medical students. Such a course has been offered previously at other medical schools across the country, including the University of Cincinnati, Columbia University and the Johns Hopkins University.

Those courses tended to focus on enhancing observational skills and then applying them to making diagnoses. The team agreed upon the importance of that focus, but wanted to include a new component.

“The ability to explore meaning, values, different perspectives in the world are very important things that art can contribute,” said medical student Laura Hodges. “So we wanted to integrate that into the course.”

Twenty Pritzker students took the course, which comprised eight class periods, including four observation sessions at the Smart Museum, a tour of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and a figure-drawing session.

Another team of graduate students from music and psychology is examining how mixing tactile and auditory information might affect musical performances.

Traditionally, psychologists have viewed human senses such as sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell as separate systems “with each sensory input processed independently of one another,” said team member Shannon Heald, a graduate student in cognitive psychology.

The discovery of the McGurk effect and related phenomena suggest otherwise. Research subjects experiencing this effect see the face of a person mouthing “ga,” while hearing “ba,” but perceiving it as “da.”           

To further investigate, Heald and her associates are testing research subjects proficient in playing the piano, guitar and violin. Subjects play under normal conditions, as well as conditions under which the musicians receive altered auditory and tactile information.

Testing, which is still under way, seeks to determine if altered stimuli can affect the perceived difficulty of the piece and whether it affects performance accuracy.

Short Portraits of a Tall Woman

Marc Miskin and Amy Stebbins, PhD students in Physics and Germanic Studies, respectively, used advanced high-speed photography to investigate once-imperceptible facial expressions of three Court Theatre actresses performing monologues from the recent production of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women.

“This is not an experiment,” Stebbins said. “We’re not concluding anything. We’re not proving anything. Basically we’re interested in asking questions, playing around with these questions and ultimately coming up with more questions.”

A typical digital video camera takes images at 15 to 30 frames per second, while the one that Miskin and Stebbins used in their project can shoot up to 500,000. The video sequences display a dynamic range of emotions, yet when played back at slow speeds the images of the actresses take on “a portrait-esque quality,” Miskin said.

Miskin and Stebbins hope to create a living room-styled exhibition space, in which they will project the videos into hanging frames.

In the fifth project, graduate students Amy Dittoe, creative writing, and Sean Fleming, psychology, examined creative writing as a means of translating arcane psychological concepts into the lingo of everyday conversation. They are developing a dictionary of human emotion—in printed and online editions—that incorporates narrative to help convey concepts from contemporary emotion research.

“We’re basically creating a glossary or manual of psychology on how you express scientific information through art,” Fleming said. Shel Silverstein’s Whatif poem inspired the project. “It really captures the essence of what worrying is from a psychological perspective,” Fleming said.           

Scientists have their own esoteric vocabulary that they use to communicate with each other. Dittoe and Fleming invited a range of public input, including residents of homeless shelters and students at schools of art, architecture and other programs of creative expression to submit their visual or textual interpretations of some of these terms.

“Some of the stories from the homeless shelter were pretty intense,” Fleming said.