Science in Context

As someone who has worked in a lab for the last five years, I have a pretty fair grasp on the disappointment // frustration that is as much a part of the scientific process as is discovery. In fact, I’d have to say that the bulk of my hypotheses are about why my experiments are failing rather than about the broader biological questions I am actually interested in. But trust me, this is not nearly so depressing as it may seem!

Entering my second year of grad school, I have been thinking a lot about what has kept me more or less sane through these years. And, more importantly, what has kept me motivated. I’ve written quite a bit on how a large chunk of scientists deal in a sort of intangible world. A biologist can’t see the intricate details of how atoms and molecules interact with one another to give rise to the complex systems we observe. A physicist can’t see those galaxies far far away, where the same physical principles that apply here on earth are also meant to hold up against scrutiny. Heck! The neuroscientist uses the very instrument she is trying to study to study the thing she trying to study!! The best we have are our best guesses, which—no matter how well-educated—can always be proven wrong.

In many ways, the fallibility of even the best hypotheses is a huge source of comfort for me. This idea that we fail because we are dealing to a huge extent with the inherently unknowable. To be honest, I don’t find the intricate details—however elegant they may be—to be the most compelling part of my own research. These details are inconstant, begging to be proved incomplete // completely wrong with some new confounding discovery. Rather, science finds its constancy in the sorts of questions it seeks to answer. So, for me at least, taking a step back from the nitty gritty of my day-to-day and asking myself what I am even trying to understand is so unbelievably therapeutic.

Taking that step back though is no trivial task. Younger researchers like myself in particular spend a huge proportion of our time grappling with such a specific problem in a very narrow field of study, so it becomes that much more difficult to broaden our gaze. To put our science in perspective.

So how do we get better at this? The most obvious answer, to me at least, is to first begin talking about our work to people who aren’t in our own field. To people who quite frankly could care less about what concentration of rna you used in your last primer extension. Or what cycling conditions you used in your last PCR. I’ve found time and time again how re-invigorated I feel trying to explain my work to a lay person because it is really then when I remember oh yeah! that’s what I’m trying to do. There’s my silver lining!

This sort of communication is a big part of why I started this blog. To give myself a venue to continue getting excited in. The other reason—and perhaps the one that is more important and far more challenging—is to put science in a different context than it usually inhabits. That is, to put science in art. To see how it exists in art. To see how it can begin to even inform and complicate art. I have always found that really great art has this way of getting to the heart of bigger-than-us concepts, so it seems to me like the ideal place for broader scientific concepts to live.

On December 7, 2012, in an effort to more actively begin weaving together art + science, mixed media arts company Our Ladies hosted ArtLab to launch ArtLab: The Series. The series brings together scientists + artists together in physical [versus cyber] space to strike up a conversation with the hope of sparking col*lab*orations. Photo + video from the event, as well as more details + updates about the series and ensuing col*lab*orations are now up here!

* Animated gifs are doodles made by drawing over failed experiments.