Science and art


Several weeks ago I was at the International Society of Behavioral Ecology’s meeting, and they had a very special event: actress Isabella Rossellini did a Q&A during a showing of her recent short film, Mammas! She is not only an actress, but also a graduate student in Animal Behavior and Conservation at Hunter College in New York City. She has produced several film series about animals, including Green Porno and Seduce Me, in addition to Mammas. These films are delightful–they accurately represent animal behaviors and mating systems with wit and humor. If you haven’t seen them, definitely check them out! Mammas is about parental care in animals, Green Porno is about strange mating behaviors, and Seduce Me describes mate choice and courtship in a variety of species.

One of the really interesting points brought up by the Q&A is how art has the opportunity to discuss potentially controversial topics in science in a way that is acceptable, and how art may actually be able to serve as an educational tool. In Mammas!, Isabella Rossellini depicts animal behaviors by dressing up as the animals and then doing what they do. Bookending these entertaining displays are short scenes of her portraying human mothers, wishing they were in the situation of the animal being described. This format does a fantastic job of humanizing the animals (making them more relatable) without anthropomorphizing them. Importantly, the information is delivered in such a way that the audience learns without feeling lectured or patronized, and the videos can be really funny. This approach to delivering science information–matter-of-fact but with humor–is a great way to educate the public about science.

Often art and science are thought of as incredibly separate–almost opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of departments or majors at universities and colleges. However, Isabella Rossellini has clearly demonstrated that the two disciplines can actually be complementary. Science can inspire art, and art can inspire science educators to utilize non-conventional teaching methods and styles. Isabella Rossellini’s films also bring up an important reminder to us researchers, who can be focused on incredibly specific topics, that getting bogged down in details is not necessarily the best for educating and garnering support from the broader public. Although the Mammas films are accurate, there are some small details that are not exactly scientifically correct. But the films deliver the spirit and overall interpretation of the body of research supporting the our knowledge of the behaviors, which was the ultimate goal. If the films had depicted the level of detail that researchers require for their work, the films would likely lose some of their spark and would not be as engaging to the broader audience. Ultimately, it seems that science and art can complement each other in many ways, and I only wish there were more examples of the two working together!

Your Inner Fish

I just watched the first episode of PBS’s “Your Inner Fish”, which I presume is based on the book by Neil Shubin (which is in my stack of books to read on my bedside table). It is a phenomenal piece of popular science television! I highly recommend you watch it, which you can do here. It is a great introduction to human anatomy, developmental biology, and evolution. It also does a really nice job of demonstrating how science works in the modern era. It presents the quest-like excitement that science can provide, but it also shows the slow pace of progress, the importance of luck as well as skill and thoughtful planning, and how it takes many people and collaborations to make real progress.

I highly recommend checking out the program, maybe in time for the new episode tonight!

Dealing with Disappointment

One of the least glamorous (and least well-known, I think) aspects of science is how many setbacks, difficulties, and tedious tasks we scientists are faced with. However, it comprises the daily grind for pretty much all scientists, and is one of the things that makes science difficult. I’ve been having a rough couple of research weeks, where my experiments keep failing. But that’s not why I’m writing this post. I’m writing this post for two reasons: 1) I want to bring up the un-glamorous side to research, because it’s often overlooked (especially in discussions of funding science) and 2) because I want to share/explain why I think there’s a pretty strong correlation between scientists and “nerds”/”geeks”.

Science research doesn’t work the way it seems to on TV or in movies. Most shows not only grossly underestimate the amount of time it actually takes to run assays (like genetic tests); many also make troubleshooting seem like all you have to do is chat about options with your colleagues. I only wish it was that easy! In reality, you chat about ideas with your peers, then implement one idea (with the appropriate controls), and evaluate the results. Often you have to test out many different options (each one taking as long or longer than the original assay) before landing on something that works.

Because of this tedium, it is easy to understand why science fiction and fantasy often appeal to scientists–I can only imagine a world where technology does all of the hard work for me, or where magic would do the heavy lifting. It can be incredibly reviving to escape to a fictional world that doesn’t have to be governed by the same rules the real world is governed by. Personally, escaping into a book is one of the best ways to deal with disappointment in my research. Other than reading and watching TV (i.e., escaping into a fictional world), I haven’t had all that many extra-curricular activities during grad school. This week, I’ve realized I need to start doing something that gives me the sense of accomplishment that I’m completely lacking in the lab. For instance, I decided to make myself a Halloween costume this year, and just sewing a hem this evening made me feel confident, competent, and like I can actually finish a project and do something tangible! I don’t know how much sewing I’ll really do, but it’s great to have it as a possibility, and I’m hoping to continue exploring my non-science-y options in the little free time I have.

Does anyone else have similar experiences, either with grad school or in other professions? How do you cope with disappointment in the workplace?

Why Doctor Who makes me a better scientist


Doctor Who is a British television phenomenon that I’ve recently become (a little) obsessed with. It’s a fantastic show, and if you haven’t seen it I recommend you check it out on Netflix. But in the course of watching it, I realize it’s actually making me into a better scientist. Here’s why:

1. The universe is exciting.
The Doctor, despite being ancient, is excited and energized by the new (and old) things he discovers. This excitement is imperative for scientists, because otherwise it’s way too easy to get bogged down in all the mundane and tedious tasks that go along with the cool, exciting discoveries.

2. You can’t work alone.

Repeatedly, the doctor goes off on his own without a companion. This usually doesn’t work out well, and his companions, when the leave him, remind him not to be alone for too long. It makes him even more of a mad man with a box. In science, collaboration is important and you really can’t get away with being completely isolated. In fact, you there is no way to be a good scientist without at least getting feedback from other scientists. And bouncing ideas off colleagues is a great way to develop and improve research ideas.

3. The scientific method is one of the most useful tools out there (other than a sonic screwdriver)

The doctor and his companions often find themselves in tight spots, trying to figure out alien races and wars without knowing much going into it. The doctor, perhaps without even realizing it, utilizes the scientific method. He observes the situation he’s in, he makes a guess (hypothesis) about what he thinks is going on based on what he already knows, he devises some way to try to get himself and his friends out of the mess or to resolve the situation, and then tries out that method. Then he sees how well it works, and if it doesn’t work he goes back and takes another guess or tries out another method. This is basically the scientific method.

Since scientists aren’t armed with sonic screwdrivers or TARDISes (yet!), the best we can do is use the scientific method. And luckily, I think that’s the doctor’s best tool in his toolkit.

4. It’s ok to not know things and be wrong.

The doctor usually admits (or is forced to admit by his companions) when he doesn’t know what’s going on or that he’s wrong. And instead of this being a bad thing, it usually leads to more fun and excitement because then he gets to figure out why that’s the case! In science, you’re almost always in the position of not knowing things (otherwise there wouldn’t be science to do!), and you pretty much have to be wrong at least sometimes. So it’s good to be reminded by the doctor that it’s not just ok to be wrong or confused–it’s an exciting opportunity!

5. Always keep trying to improve

The doctor seems to be constantly fiddling with the TARDIS, trying to make her work better, or adding rooms, or whatnot (I’m so excited for the upcoming episode, Journey to the center of the TARDIS!). And that’s what scientists should be constantly doing–analyzing the available tools and analyses and trying to figure out how to make them work better/more efficiently.

So this is my justification for why Doctor Who (and probably plenty of other shows like it) are a good thing for a developing scientist to watch. That and it’s wonderful and addicting. So go out there and explore this lovely universe we live in.

ROUSes exist!

Those of you that are familiar with The Princess Bride (which should be all of you) know that Rodents of Unusual Size (aka ROUSes) are one of the largest dangers of the Fire Swamp (other than the fire and sandpits). But The Princess Bride is pure fantasy, right? Wrong.

ROUSes do in fact exist on an island of Gough. In actuality, they are house mice that have been introduced to the island, allowing them to be released from selective pressure on their size. And these mice are causing a huge problem: decimating bird populations by eating the chicks. So beware of the ROUSes while on Gough Island, because I imagine they would just as gladly attack you as a baby bird if you were to sit still for long enough.