While most people would view art and science as unrelated fields of study, Rebecca Kamen sees them as interconnected disciplines that can enrich each other. She demonstrates the bridge between art and science by “making the relationship between the invisible visible.” Sharing the bridge between art and science as Kamen sees it has become her passion, and she hopes, her legacy.
“So many of us were taught science through the drill and kill method,” observes Kamen. “We were not taught to see how things interrelate. I remember having to memorize all the numbers on the periodic table, but never understood its significance to me as a person.”
In 2007 Kamen had an epiphany. When returning from a lecture trip to Santiago Chile she envisioned the periodic table as a muse for the creation of art. This preliminary visualization ultimately became a quest to take something that most people think of as rigid and boring and make it beautiful.
Over the course of the next two years Kamen traveled the world and researched other cultures’ depictions of the elements. She combed through the alchemy book collection at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. She studied the Lewis and Clark diaries, Isaac Newton’s Principia, and original drawings and engravings by Ben Franklin at the American Philosophical Library—also in Philadelphia. While conducting this extensive research, Kamen realized that before the advent of the camera scientists were artists, creating beautiful drawings and paintings to represent their findings. Several years later she had a pivotal discussion with Nobel Laureate, Baruch Blumberg. He described science as an illusion— very much like magic. He clarified by saying that scientists and artists have intuitions about certain things, which provides the basis for their research. Both disciplines conduct experiments and collect data in a manner that tries to support the illusion that they have.
Kamen says she couldn’t believe her ears. She had come to a similar conclusion. In fact, she teaches that drawing relates to magic because one can take a flat piece of paper and create the illusion of three-dimensional objects.
The discussion with Blumberg confirmed Kamen’s conclusion that artists and scientists follow the same discovery process. They begin with intuition, observe the world around them, and then somehow depict the invisible world as they record their findings.
Kamen’s research also revealed that each American Nobel Prize winner in chemistry reported having had some type of significant art experience—from drawing to music. Because their experience in art compelled these Nobel Prize winners to look at their work from a different perspective, these scientists believe they actually improved their problem solving abilities in the lab. Kamen’s research culminated with a sculpture garden called “Divining Nature: An Elemental Garden,” a three-dimensional depiction of the periodic table constructed of Mylar cutouts and fiberglass rods. The 2009 exhibit was well received. Over four thousand people viewed it at the Greater Reston Arts Center (GRACE). The exhibit is slated to go on permanent display at George Mason University’s new science building. “Divining Nature” provided the seed for her next endeavor. Kamen hypothesized that if she could follow this process of discovery, problem solving, and visualization, then she could teach others to follow the same process.
“It’s like starting out on a journey,” declares Kamen. “You begin with a problem to solve. I wondered if it were possible to get scientists to be able to envision their research as art? Or could we use art to enhance the teaching of science?” This summer Kamen and Amy Van Meter, the Director of the Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program at George Mason University set out to prove this hypothesis. They challenged 48 Aspiring Scientists with creating a work of art that represented a facet of their research. “We walked in with a challenge: Use art to describe your research,” states Kamen. “Amy and I were delighted with what the interns created and their ability to articulate what it represented. These Aspiring Scientists had to synthesize their data, think of some artistic form that would capture what they were seeing, and then articulate what (and why) it was.”
The ASSIP experiment demonstrated that one can teach creative thinking in one discipline to influence and enhance problem solving skills in the other. The Aspiring Scientists enthusiastically embraced their challenge and produced some very thought provoking and beautiful pieces, which will be on display at the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond starting next year. The program’s participants agreed that the recommendation to see their projects through a different lens helped them to be more creative. Americans tend to take science for granted. As a culture, we lose our scientific curiosity in grade school—largely a result of the drill and kill method of learning Kamen describes above. This lack of cultural curiosity has a serious impact on our economy and ability to be competitive in a global marketplace.
In fact, the United States has fallen dismally behind the rest of the world in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education. Only 5.6% of the world’s college graduates with STEM degrees come from the U.S. And over the course of the next five years domestic demand for STEM jobs will grow at twice the rate as non-STEM jobs—a gap that cannot be closed under status quo circumstances. Resolution requires not only interest from students, but also qualified educators, another area seriously lacking in our education system. Moreover, the gap in STEM education jeopardizes our economic recovery as a whole. Nobel Prize recipient, Robert Solow, discovered that more than 50% of economic growth could be explained by technological innovation. As a result, the gap in supply and demand for STEM candidates has serious consequences for the U.S. economy. In particular the gap jeopardizes local industry, which supports the Department of Defense and government agencies that require advancements in STEM to resolve large-scale domestic and global issues.
Kamen’s work gives us insight into how to turn the dismal academic output around by making science exciting and relevant by adding STEAM (art) to STEM. It’s critical that we find other creative ways to ignite the curiosity and passion of our students. The U.S. economy is banking on it.
And that’s where Kamen’s vision and passion will continue to bear fruit. A professor of art at Northern Virginia Community College, Kamen has recently been awarded a Chancellor’s Commonwealth Professorship by the Virginia Community College System. This two-year appointment enables Kamen to extend her reach to schools and scientific communities—directly and in collaboration with other artists, educators, and scientists. She and Van Meter are already planning next summer’s ASSIP project.
Kamen believes her new role lays the foundation for creating the legacy she dreams of leaving. She wants to give students the opportunity to create and show work that has been informed and inspired by different aspects of science. These works act as a catalyst to inspire other students and generate interest in pursuing STEM as a course of study. It turns out you can see the invisible—you just have to know how to look for it. And if you look through Kamen’s eyes, you’ll be seeing a world filled with awe, wonder, and hope for the future.