Senior Rebekah Rodriguez loves the complexities of science and the details of art history. A recent study abroad trip gave her an opportunity to combine her passions into a semester of inspirational research.
Earlier this year, Rodriguez worked with researchers at the University of Vienna in Austria who study neuroaesthetics, an emerging science of how neural mechanisms influence how people perceive and interact with art.
“I wanted to explore empirical research within art history a little more — pushing the edge between science and art in a way that I think is ultimately insightful for both disciplines,” she said.
Rodriguez is seeking two bachelor’s degrees — one in visual and performing arts from the School of Arts and Humanities and the other in cognitive science from the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences.
In Austria, Rodriguez put her training to use as she worked with investigators at the Laboratory for Cognitive Research in Art History. Her main task was to assist with a study that used mobile eye-tracking devices to determine what museumgoers look at when viewing art in a museum. She had a range of duties, including organizing materials, assisting in data collection and preparing information for analysis.
“We connected everyday museumgoers to mobile eye-tracking units, which are basically a pair of goggles connected to a tablet in a backpack. The volunteers were allowed to examine the exhibit as they normally would, with no constraints, while we monitored their gaze,” Rodriguez said.
Data is still being collected and compiled, but Rodriguez said the research team noticed some interesting, preliminary trends while she worked on the project.
“When people enter a room within a museum, they typically give a general glance across the entire room before moving to individual pieces of work,” she said. “When they exit the room, they do a similar, sweeping glance across the room and tend to focus on their favorite artwork or artworks in the room.”
Rodriguez said the study will determine how a person’s gaze can be affected by social situations within the museum as well as by the composition of elements in the space.
While Rodriguez’s trip was supported through UT Dallas’ International Education Fund Scholarship, she made many of the arrangements herself. In addition to the research work, she earned additional academic credits by studying European architecture and history.
A highlight of her trip was visiting Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris one week before it caught fire.
Rodriguez said her semester in Europe gave her a chance to grow as a researcher and to experience a scientific field very different from her previous experience. She said that after earning her bachelor’s degrees from UT Dallas, she plans to pursue a master’s degree in art history or cognitive science. She also said she was informally invited back to the University of Vienna to pursue a PhD, which she is considering.
“My trip to Vienna was filled with profound experiences, both with the people I met and the things I got to see. It really connected a lot of dots,” she said.