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Through a different lens

How can students strengthen their education by stepping outside their major and trying something new? Two professors — one in studio art and the other in biology — pose this question to undergraduate students in a course combining science and printmaking.

A woman paints on a piece of fabric.
Laura Jones paints a relief-printed piece of fabric during her class “Art and Science: Merging Printmaking and Biology.” Jones’ depiction of flora historically used in women’s health was inspired by the drawings of Elizabeth Blackwell, one of the first female British botanical illustrators to gain notoriety.

Laura Jones sat along the sprawling windows in the Hanes Art Center print studio, headphones plugged in and paintbrush in hand. In front of her was an eight-foot piece of fabric, covered edge to edge with relief prints of a variety of plants. Jones carefully filled in each intricate part with homemade dyes made from organic matter like acorns and tea leaves.

The biology undergrad with a studio art minor was working on her final project for the course “Art and Science: Merging Printmaking and Biology” led by art professor Beth Grabowski and biology professor Bob Goldstein. Made up of seven students with biology prerequisites and seven with art prerequisites, the course explores how these two disciplines can influence one another.

Throughout the semester, students used science — like visually interpreting microscope slides and creating images from motion software — as inspiration for printmaking projects.

“One of the lingering questions for us is: What does it mean to think like an artist and think like a scientist?” Grabowski said.

The students, she explained, often find that similarities outweigh the differences.

A student looks at a microscope.

Ruth Moffatt, an art major, looks at a slide under a microscope. The students used images from the slides like those of human skin cells, soil, or an ant antenna as inspiration for later prints.

A person holds a cellphone up to a microscope

A student uses a smartphone adapter to take photographs of a microscope slide. While the ways in which science can inspire art may be obvious, how art impacts science is more complex and a question the professors often pose to their students.

“We definitely have discoveries in our lab that are based on things that maybe people had seen before but hadn’t really noticed,” Goldstein said. “I think looking and really thinking about what you’re looking at, like in art, I’m sure has subtle effects.”

Two students look at microscopes.

Aubrey Knier, a biology major with an art minor, and Luke Collins, a studio art major, look at microscope slides. One of the goals of the course is to bring together students from different disciplines.

“They really inspire each other,” Grabowski said. “I think the science curiosity is upped in the art students and the art curiosity and risk-taking is upped in the science students.”

Grabowski notes the depth of students’ projects due to a strong foundation in research throughout the art-making process.

“I always talk about art making as being a conversation between intuition and intellect,” she says. “That intellectual exploration feeds the intuitive ‘well’ so you just have a lot more to draw on.”

Two women work on a letterpress.

Beth Grabowski helps Emma Haseley use a Vandercook proof press, a machine used commercially from the early 1900s to the 1960s, to create a print about the sugar cane industry.

A male student sketches a design.

Tosin Olayinka, a biology major, sketches a design based on the mathematical concept of cellular automata. Throughout the course Olayinka learned to approach scientific ideas through the eyes of an artist, thinking about biological terms in different ways.

“A lot of biological artifacts are prints, in a sense,” he said, as an example. “Like fossils ­— they’re not actually the bones of the animal, they’re the result of rock formations onto bones. In a sense that’s a naturally occurring print.”

While biology and art students vary greatly in the content of their education, Grabowski finds common ground between the two in their process of exploration. “The creativity a scientist has and the creativity an artist has is very similar,” she said. “I guess they both have the ability to find a question that they don’t know they were looking for, that happens in both realms all the time.” A purple skull dries on a window.

A screenprint dries on the window of the  Genome Sciences Building. Students have the freedom to go in any direction their inquiring mind takes them, guided by brainstorming sessions with Goldstein and Grabowski. “Because the learning is all based on the students’ curiosity it’s supposed to be really powerful. They learn much more effectively,” Goldstein said. “For example, with the final projects we have 14 students, so the science goes in 14 different directions.”

View more photos on Endeavors’ website