Adding an Artistic Dimension to Science

Vince LiCata remembers vividly the first time he took part in a summer science program in high school. “Once I got to work in a real lab, I was like, ‘Wow, this is so much fun. This is so interesting. This is really what I want to do.’ ” Today, LiCata is a tenured professor of biochemistry at Louisiana State University (LSU), Baton Rouge.

“You have to test the waters a little bit at a time to see if it is an acceptable thing” to practice your art, says biochemistry professor and playwright Vince LiCata.

(top) Actors rehearsing Vince LiCata’s . (Patricia A. Suchy)

But research is not his only love. In college, LiCata was an actor. When he was a graduate student, he started writing plays. The year he finished his Ph.D., his first play, The Fountain of Youth, won the Baltimore Playwrights Festival’s Best Play award. Since then, he has written and produced eight plays, made three short movies, and published 25 short stories. “I like the theater and I like plays. I like acting. I like watching emotions in complex situations develop on stage,” LiCata says.

LiCata isn’t the only chemist who writes plays. Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffman, co-authors of the play Oxygen, are both widely published literary authors. Yet both began their literary work after they were established as scientists. It can be harder for a younger scientist to maintain such dual interests, balancing art and science, because a career in science requires a deep commitment–and the perception of commitment by reviewers and peers. Yet for those who practice both, art and science feed into each other in interesting and productive ways.

Breathing time

Back in graduate school, when he returned to his dorm room after long days in the lab, Peter Gray painted artistic interpretations of what he’d seen that day under his microscope. In one of the first multimedia paintings he exhibited, Gray, a former molecular biologist who is now a full-time sculptor, depicted an icosahedral virus on an electron microscope grid–with bubble wrap.

During his research years, Gray often felt provoked by the artistic qualities of the images he encountered–but “as a scientist, I would always put it away as data,” he says. At the time, art was just a serious hobby. “You need some type of emotional and intellectual outlet,” Gray says. Art was his.

But art can be more than a means of rest and relaxation. People who practice art and science say their art makes them better scientists. “If I am trying to figure out how to do a particular experiment and I have to go over and help somebody light a scene, that’s just [using] a completely different part of your brain,” LiCata says. “That’s really important when you work constantly with complicated information, to allow your brain to have that breathing time.” Dancing has a similar effect on Miriam Sach, a dancer, choreographer, and neuroscience postdoc at the University of California, San Diego. Dancing allows her to “let go of what you have been doing all the day.” Then, “usually afterwards, you know solutions, you know which ways to take your science,” she says.

Former molecular biologist Peter Gray working in his sculpture studio Point Mutation © 2008

Dancing your science

At his Metal-i-Genics Studio, Gray captures the aesthetics of genetics, microbiology, and physics in bronze and steel sculptures. His goal is “to try and create something that has both an aesthetic value as a sculpture and then also leads to further questioning by the viewer.” When you practice art, “you tend to look more broadly at either the questions you’re asking as a scientist or the results you get,” Gray says. “In science, … you have to be open to the interpretation of results and look for next steps maybe in unexpected directions. In art, you’re always interpreting what the artist is trying to say or what you see.” 

An informal studio presentation last March showing Sach’s short dance on her current research, on children with focal brain lesion, led to her participation in the 2009 “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest, which was organized by Science’s Gonzo scientist. She was the contest’s winner in the postdoc category. (LiCata won in the professor category.) In her Ph.D. dance (available on YouTube), Sach interprets cerebral activation patterns induced by the inflection of regular and irregular verbs. “In science in general, you break material down into pieces, but when I was creating that dance, I really had to gather all that material and figure out which are the most important findings,” Sach says. She then had to plug those most important findings into the bigger picture, she says. It was “good for me to again practice that skill to make my science comprehensive. … You really think about it in a new way.”

“In science, you should always keep that in mind–that [in] what you’re looking at … there is a true inherent beauty,” Gray says. “And I think that as a scientist, you have an obligation to express it in some way to nonscientists.”

A balancing act

Neuroscience postdoc Miriam Sach dancing at the Summer Workshop Concert from Jean Isaacs Dance Theater 2006. (Photo: Manuel Rotenberg)

Like any outside commitment, the professional pursuit of art can compete with your scientific career. Yet in art, time itself is malleable. “If, for example, my goal is to paint murals every other week, it would be frustrating because I don’t have enough time to do it. But what interests me is to develop a new language, to find a new aesthetics, to develop my new signature that relates to my vision as an individual. Therefore, the question of time is almost nonexistent,” says Ariel Ruiz i Altaba, a biology professor who studies stem cells at the University of Geneva Medical School in Switzerland–and also a professional artist. Ruiz i Altaba works on understanding the molecular mechanisms governing the development and maintenance of form, as well as its loss in disease, in the lab, and on exploring issues of perception and identity in his studio, mostly through photography-based art.

LiCata’s DNA Play opens this week in the Hopkins Black Box Theater at LSU. “I am spending a fair amount of time on it working with the director and doing rewrites. We use scientific equipment on stage, so I’ve got to make sure that works” too, LiCata says. But periods of intense effort arise only occasionally, so it is possible to schedule it so that it does not clash with scientific deadlines, LiCata says.

Another issue, especially for early-career scientists, is commitment, and the perception of commitment. “You have to test the waters a little bit at a time to see if it is an acceptable thing” to practice your art, LiCata says. “There are still a lot of departments and universities out there that think that it’s a total waste of time.” If your department is one of them, you will “have to lead a double life to some degree,” LiCata says. Artistic activities are “designed to be publicly accessible, but the idea is not to flaunt them” in the lab.

The perception of divided commitment can also be an issue with peers. “It’s hard for most people to acknowledge that anybody can be invested in more than one thing simultaneously,” Ruiz i Altaba says. “At the beginning, it may be hurtful or difficult when you are a young artist or scientist and perceived by the inner circles as not being one like them.” In his earlier days, Ruiz i Altaba recalls, people often told him, “You could be a better scientist. When are you going to stop wasting your time with images?” His advice: Courteously thank these people, “then go on with your life. … Artists make art not because they like it but because they have to.”

Stem cell biologist and professional artist Ariel Ruiz i Altaba

At some point, most scientist-artists have to set their art aside for a while. “During the formative years of scientific training, you … can either give it 100%, or 300%. If you don’t give it at least 150%, you are not going anywhere,” says Ruiz i Altaba, who gave up art during his grad school years. LiCata’s separation from his art came during his probationary faculty years when he felt he had to focus on getting tenure. “My art went on hold while I was trying to make a living as a scientist,” Gray says, “because I spent most of my time writing grants.”

Making a choice early in your career to split your time between two passions is likely to have effects long after tenure. If “you want to go to Harvard or be at Stanford, you make the ultimate commitment scientifically,” Gray says. “You need to know the balance that works for you,” LiCata says.

Above all, Ruiz i Altaba says, it’s a question of choosing what you want and being consistent: “It’s going to be a personal, peculiar choice, and one has to stick by it.” Never let yourself be paralyzed by the fear of risks, he adds. Whatever your choice, put into it “as much passion as you can.”

“It’s not for everybody, but if it’s for you, then just follow your path, be true to yourself, and be strong,” Ruiz i Altaba says. “The rewards can be enormous.”

Mad Scientist, Authoritarian and Circus Trainer

Bill to reform US skilled worker visa programs is effort to ‘build momentum’