UT Dallas Magazine: Artists, Scientists Blur the Lines

Dr. Kathryn Evans conducting

Dr. Kathryn Evans started as a mathematician before turning to music.

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from “Blurred Lines” by assistant director of communications Amanda Siegfried from the latest edition of UT Dallas Magazine. 

While the traditions and audiences of scientists and artists may be diverse, the creative processes they use to achieve success are more alike than different, and they are motivated by the same shared goal — to understand and describe the world around them and to communicate that understanding and insight to others. At UT Dallas, researchers often blur the lines between science and the humanities, using concepts and tools from the arts to inspire or inform scientific inquiry, and vice versa.

Defining Creativity Across Disciplines

Dr. Magdalena Grohman seated in her office

Dr. Magdalena Grohman

Dr. Magdalena Grohman, associate director of the Center for Values in Medicine, Science, and Technology, said her interest in the psychology of creativity, creative thinking and the creative process started in high school in her native Poland. At UT Dallas, she teaches courses on creativity, including how it is measured and defined. Students from a mix of majors take her survey class.

When asked whether creativity and inspiration are different among traditional artists versus scientists, she said the issue is complex.

What is known, she said, is that creative people across domains are good at defining a problem, as opposed to strictly solving a problem.

“In cognitive psychology, it has been shown that people who spend more time on constructing the problem often come up with more novel, useful and unique solutions to the problem,” Grohman said. “In scientific inquiry, this will be trying to define the problem to solve, while in artistic domains, it may be choosing the right idea to convey.”

While some psychologists contend that creativity is domain specific — it’s different for a mathematician and a poet, for example — others say it is domain general, she said. The debate is open.

“But what we do know from the areas of cognitive psychology and personality research is that there is strong evidence that creative people across domains share one trait: They are open to experience,” she said.

Can Music Make You Smarter?

From a psychological standpoint, it’s tricky to prove that experience in one domain can make someone actually perform better in another domain.

Dr. Kathryn Evans is on a mission to find out.

For her doctoral dissertation in the ATEC program, Evans surveyed UT Dallas students about their experience studying music, performing music and in sound design, and how those experiences related to their academic performance in other areas. The student population offered a unique pool: About three-quarters of UT Dallas students major in a STEM field.

“We found there was something about studying music theory that was the No. 1 indicator of academic success,” said Evans, who earned her PhD in 2016.

Music theory involves analyzing the structure of musical pieces, including drilling down to smaller and smaller bits like individual notes, measures and phrases, which leads to a greater understanding of the whole.

“Having to break a big piece down into little pieces — and practice it over and over again — well, that’s how you learn stuff,” Evans said. “That’s how you learn biochemistry, or how to move your fingers on the violin. That’s how you learn the Krebs cycle, which is how we digest our food to get energy.

“That’s what these students said music had taught them.”

The next step for Evans will be trying to test whether experience in one domain actually improves performance in another.

“It’s not as simple as saying, if your kid takes music theory and can identify the key of A major, then they’ll be able to figure out stochastic chemistry. It’s not that clean and simple,” Evans said.

When Science Becomes Art

Materials scientist Dr. Moon Kim’s science practice has enmeshed him in an art discipline called “nanoart,” which aims to discover and accentuate the artistic beauty of nanometer-sized natural and artificial structures — so small they can’t be seen with the naked eye.

Using a variety of microscopy instruments and techniques to characterize and build new materials, Kim and his students have imaged a nanoshell particle used in medical imaging, with iron oxide concentrated on the surface of the shell. When the researchers added a bit of false color to make the iron oxide glow red, the image transformed into a nano total eclipse. The image won the grand prize in a 2015 contest sponsored by an instrumentation company.

Kim’s nanoart gallery is also filled with sculptures and copies of masterpieces that he and his students have created, including tiny flags, jet fighters and a grayscale version of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night.

“Especially for nanosculpture, making these creations helps students train to use high-value instruments,” said Kim, a Louis Beecherl Jr. Distinguished Professor who holds appointments both in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science and in ATEC. “It’s not always fun to learn or operate, so this provides new motivation. With this skill set, they become trained to carry out their own scientific work.”

When Art Becomes Science

Dr. Roger Malina, the Arts and Technology Distinguished Chair, embodies the intermingling of art and science, with dual appointments in School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication and the Department of Physics in the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. As a space scientist with expertise in extreme ultraviolet astrophysics, he directed astrophysics laboratories in France and California, led observational satellite projects for NASA, and is dedicated to merging arts and humanities with science and engineering.

UT Dallas Magazine
Fall 2017

UT Dallas Magazine, Fall 2017

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In 2013, Malina founded the ArtSciLab at UT Dallas to facilitate new forms of collaboration between artists and scientists. Building on his decades of experience as executive editor of the Leonardo suite of publications from MIT Press, which provide a platform for the arts/science/technology scholarly community, he and his ArtSciLab collaborators recently added to that suite ARTECA, a digital publishing project led by Cassini Nazir, clinical associate professor in ATEC.

“ARTECA champions and documents the work of the new ‘hybrid’ professionals whose academic pursuits bridge the arts and sciences,” Malina said.

The ArtSciLab collaborations involve a mix of established UT Dallas scientists, computer programmers, artists and art historians translating data into sight, sound and experience.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has funded one such project to “sonify” imaging data from the brain. Combining the expertise of Dr. Gagan Wig, assistant professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences and in the Center for Vital Longevity, with that of sound designer Scot Gresham-Lancaster in ATEC, the approach allows data from MRI scans to be represented by sounds from which a trained listener might be able to discern patterns of brain connectivity not readily seen through available visualization strategies.

The goal is to produce a kind of “data stethoscope” to compare brain networks of healthy and unhealthy individuals.

The effort is creating not only a new way for scientists to study complex functions of the brain but also an opportunity to “perform” data in art settings, said Gresham-Lancaster, assistant professor in the sound design program.

Read the full article in UT Dallas Magazine.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].