Art in Bio features Undergraduate student Kathleen Lu

by Kaitlyn M. Murphy, Ph.D. Candidate at Auburn University, Janzen Lab Alum , Warner & Mendonca Labs

This year’s SICB in Austin, TX was chockfull of integrative and premier research that built on new and continuing concepts in biology subfields. When perusing one of the afternoon poster sessions during the meeting, I came across Ms. Kathleen Lu’s work from Binghamton University entitled “Impact of art on public perception and student comprehension of disease ecology research.”

For this project, Kathleen and her co-authors developed an art exhibit on teaching disease ecology where two studies allowed 1) visitors to report their interest in science and research before and after viewing the exhibit and 2) upper-level undergraduate students in STEM to explore the art exhibit as a teaching method and evaluate their topic comprehension. For the latter experiment, students were divided into three groups: (A) only art exhibit engagement, (B) read only the abstracts of papers and not visiting the exhibit, or (C) neither method used.

Art by Ben McLauchlin utilized in Ms. Lu’s research.

“The art show featured in my poster was actually the (art)work of another undergraduate in the lab, Ben McLauchlin… it was physical paintings and digital graphics. He also utilized 3D sculptures, videos of trematode movement, and an aquarium containing live tadpoles. From that, we saw that engaging with science-art improved perceptions/interest in research for 2 groups of participants (backgrounds of non-STEM and general-STEM). However, the non-STEM group exhibited the most improvement. So we noticed that audience background played a big role in how this alternative science communication method affected them,” says Kathleen. “When we later invited only upper-level ecology students, we found that students that read the abstracts had better short-term comprehension than those who viewed the art exhibit. We think that this is because art naturally targets the affective, or emotional, side of learning rather than the cognitive.”

Art by Ben McLauchlin utilized in Ms. Lu’s research.

After speaking with Kathleen about the findings from the study, I wanted to know more about how the project was developed and where these ideas for integrating art and science stemmed from. “I’ve loved drawing since I was a kid. When I started college, I stopped consistently engaging with my hobbies. It was hard to feel motivated to be creative when I always had a homework assignment to do or an exam I had to study for. In the meantime, I did 2 poster presentations in my sophomore-junior years, and designing + presenting the posters were some of my favorite parts about the whole scientific process,” Kathleen says. “A while back, I received an email about how the Hua Lab was looking for an illustrator for a graphic novel about ecology. I immediately signed up; it sounded like a way for me to combine my interest in science and art. That really kickstarted my interest in science communication!”

Kathleen and co-authors are planning another art show to expand their study. “In the next art show that I’m contributing to, I’m planning on doing everything in canvas and acrylic paint. It’s also going to be a little different from the last one in that we’re also investigating how the experiences of the various artists and how their experience affects the final art show,” Kathleen says. “There will also be more artists involved than in the last art show and different mediums. Additionally, we’re planning on holding it in 2 different locations (Madison, WI & Binghamton, NY) so there’s more opportunity to compare the effects of audience backgrounds. So far we’ve only done visual art, but I think it would be cool to experiment with stuff like poetry or music!”

When asked about whether science and art relate, Kathleen says “Before getting involved in research, I probably would’ve said science and art are totally opposite fields with almost nothing in common. I would have said that science is about hard facts and logic, and art is about imagination and emotions. Right vs. left side of the brain, etc. But I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of intersectionality. I think science – especially biology – serves as a great inspiration for art. And art is a really good way to catch people’s attention and make research more compelling to outsiders.”  Like many others at this year’s SICB, Kathleen noticed that “…there were a bunch of posters at SICB that I was drawn to by their clever, eye-catching designs! My lab has been seeing that using art in education is great for improving engagement with research. So I definitely recommend that more scientists engage in creativity. I think that doing both science and art require patience, creativity, and attention to detail. Maybe that’s why I enjoy both?”

Another co-author on this project, Ms. Kyra Ricci from the University of Wisconsin – Madison gave a talk entitled “Communicating disease ecology through art: an empirical investigation.” Kyra and colleagues designed a graphic novel on using art to engage 3rd grade students. “In the graphic novel (which Kyra mentioned in her talk), our team used digital illustration programs like Krita and Adobe InDesign. Kyra just had a manuscript about this project get accepted into the Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education. It is in their 2023 Special Issue on Science Literacy!” adds Kathleen. To read out more about this interesting work, check out this link!

Also , another Art/Sci related resource

This book is a portal into this new understanding about how the arts and aesthetics can help us transform traditional medicine, build healthier communities, and mend an aching planet.

Featuring conversations with artists such as David Byrne, Renée Fleming, and evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson, Your Brain On Art is an authoritative guide neuroaesthetics. The book weaves a tapestry of breakthrough research, insights from multidisciplinary pioneers, and compelling stories from people who are using the arts to enhance their lives.



Connect with Kaitlynn


Author: suzannecrmiller

Author of Queen, Wage, The Selections on Amazon, Fly on site and soon to be Souvenir through @Inkdedingray publishing

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