MDI Biological Laboratory

Art Meets Science – A Writer’s Perspective

  • February 15, 2017

Students at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, generally celebrate those who chose unconventional paths and, as a “nontraditional” student, the road less traveled is quite familiar to me. I am in my 60s and grew up during a period of experimentation and self-expression. I have earned my keep by writing and by managing my husband’s business as a stone carver. For most of my life I have lived and worked among artists.

Former Senior Staff Scientist Benjamin L. King, Ph.D., collaborated with artist Beth Pfeiffer. He works with animal models like the bichir, pictured above.

Here at MDI Biological Laboratory, I work as a communications intern, offering my creative skills to the message of science. I am intrigued by the institution’s ongoing relationship with visual artists and curious about the effect that relationship has on its participants. Since 2013, professional artists have visited the institution to observe and converse with researchers, and to respond, through their media, to what they experience here. In reviewing documentation of these interactions, I am struck by an imbalance; there is little in the way of published recognition, on the part of the scientists, of the value to them in collaborating with artists. A noticeable exception is the way former Senior Staff Scientist Benjamin L. King, Ph.D., reacted to his 2015 pairing with printmaker Beth Pfeiffer:

“Beth’s use of layers in her prints was analogous to how we, as biologists, conceptualize layers of complexity that govern processes like regeneration. The datasets we study give us snapshots of those layers  and our research overlays snapshots to find what is common.”

King goes on to acknowledge a lesson he learned in working with Pfeiffer: “Finding those common mechanisms for regeneration will give us new insight on how to design therapies to repair diseased tissues,” he says.

Artist Beth Pfeiffer uses printmaking techniques to express reflections on the natural world.

Reading King’s response, I wonder what other researchers at MDI Biological Laboratory may have gleaned from their partnerships with painters, sculptors and designers. Just as the scientific method informs aspects of artistic exploration, can the materials and techniques of artists educate engineers, biologists and mathematicians? And, if this were so, would it be as valuable for the scientist to visit the studio as it is for the artist to spend time in the lab?

Scientists, like artists, often work in isolation. Even when they collaborate, partnerships may be restricted to those within a single discipline. It strikes me that MDI Biological Laboratory’s Art Meets Science initiative offers an opportunity that should not be wasted – to transform both sides of the equation. I look forward to exploring the possibilities of such transformative and interdisciplinary relationships during my internship here.

Shlomit Auciello is a member of the College of the Atlantic Class of 2017. Her work at COA focuses on narrative storytelling as a toolset for engaging audiences in challenging conversations. This winter she is an intern in the MDI Biological Laboratory’s Department of Development and Public Affairs.