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Student scientist-artists unveil new exhibit

This semester, Anna Mehlhorn ’22 and eight other William & Mary students worked individually or in pairs to create everything from infographics to music to textile art, demonstrating the diversity within “SciArt,” the fusion of science and art. Last week, to celebrate these student innovations, Mehlhorn facilitated an event where the project participants discussed their works and heard from three professionals in the field.
With this project and event, Mehlhorn achieved a goal she set for herself three years ago in her William & Mary college admission essay. She had organized an event in high school to demonstrate the overlap between art and different elements of science, technology, engineering, and math to middle school students. Inspired by SciArt and cross-disciplinary conversations in general, her dream was to create a similar event at William & Mary.
“That’s kind of the main reason I chose to come to William & Mary,” Mehlhorn said. “Everyone seemed so passionate about their very specific focus on campus. For me, that’s now marine biology and art. I’ve become so passionate and want to talk to everybody about this new interest of mine. But it's hard when everyone’s masked and you're discouraged from seeing people.”
Mehlhorn has rekindled these discussions for some and introduced others to the concept. Alyssa Glauser ’22, who used acrylic paint to represent kleptomania, the stealing of resources from other creatures, in various sea slug species, feels SciArt lacks adequate attention. Glauser only learned she could meld her love for fine art and biology her senior year of high school. Similarly, Jacob Brotman-Krass ’22 - who built electric guitar pedals for the project - had never thought to combine his passions for music and engineering.
“I’ve always liked building stuff a lot, and I always felt like there’s an art to making things. And then in high school I started playing the electric guitar. So I’ve had these two sides my whole life, but this was the first time I really put them together, which was cool. I also didn’t know there was a space to do that. I had never heard of SciArt before this, so this was a really really exciting project,” Brotman-Krass said.
Mehlhorn and many of the SciArt project participants underscored the importance of SciArt in communicating scienceto the public. Mehlhorn associates traditional science communication with large blocks of text and complicated diagrams. Illustrations, graphical abstracts, and other art forms can make science accessible to a wider audience.
SciArt is also appreciated by scientists; more and more scientific journals and grant applications require a graphical abstract, Mehlhorn said. These allow readers to visualize the purpose and findings of a study in just moments. Graphics provide a simple overview of otherwise complex research. For this reason, Mehlhorn added, people are more receptive to graphics than text-heavy posts on social media.
In some cases, illustration and other art forms may be a more effective means to communicate science.
“I’m definitely not the loudest person in the room, but I think to communicate your science you don’t need to be. I want to use art to communicate my science effectively and to make me stand out as a scientist in the future. I think that’s what it’s done for me so far,” Mehlhorn explained.
Sci Art quiltAfter bonding over coffee and their shared love for math, Sarah Wicker ‘23 and Gabrielle Jawer ’21 created a quilt to show the beauty of fractals. The pair hopes their new approach to math - adding texture, color, and warmth to abstract concepts - will impress and intrigue those who otherwise shy away from the subject.
“For some of us visitors to the virtual gallery, the quilt most dramatically illustrates how the art helps the science and the science helps the art. The math inspired a very beautiful and original textile, and the warmth and accessibility of the quilt certainly draws people in for a closer look at the math concepts.” said Dan Cristol, Director of Undergraduate Research at the Charles Center, which sponsored the virtual SciArt gallery as part of Undergraduate Research Month at W&M.
Anneliese Brei ’22 found yet another way to combine art and math to make abstract concepts easier to grasp. Using the Twine computer program, Brei created an interactive graphical story about deciding whether or not to study abroad, to demonstrate the role of neural networks in decision-making.
But SciArt is not only a means of explaining science. For Brotman-Krass, art was in the spotlight. Electrical engineering provided a medium for creating new electric guitar pedals and, ultimately, new sounds.
“I love this so much. It's a freedom, you know. I’m choosing to be in that room. Even though it can be infuriating sometimes, the end result is something I love. I love music. I mean, that– that’s the driving force. I don’t think I ever would’ve gotten into the electronics stuff if there wasn’t a music force behind it.”
Science and art build on one another. After facilitating the SciArt event, Mehlhorn echoed the three guest speakers’ messages that students should not feel they have to choose between the two.
“You don’t have to drop any of your passions in making your career plan. There’s always a way to tie everything you love together. My goal over these past three years, and especially this year, has been to tie biology and art together. And I wanted to show other scientists, other artists, and just the general public, that there are opportunities to do that. You don’t have to limit yourself - it might take a little extra effort sometimes - but that’s what the guest speakers have done in their careers.”
The SciArt event left the student participants buzzing with excitement and gratitude. Mehlhorn is eager to host a similar event in the future and hopes to include some of this year’s participants in leadership roles.
View the SciArt virtual gallery.

Watch a recording of the discussion with visiting artist-scientists. 

{{youtube:medium|ztGI9dCl1rA, SciArt: An undergraduate research gallery}} 
Visit another undergraduate SciArt project, the curated photography show “And still, movement” at the MuscarelleMuseum 12-4 Wednesdays - Fridays until June 6. Free with W&M ID.
Stream a video-taped version the exhibit “And still, movement” narrated by the student curators.