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What can Science learn from Art?

We are Scientists; we know how we think...but how do those creative, emotive, paint-splattering artists think? To try to understand, I sat down with Queen’s Medical Research Institute’s artist in residence since July last year - Mark Eischeid.

During his residency he produced two main pieces of art. The first is a “series of drawings with coloured pencil,” choosing three locations within the building and, looking outside, he sketched the colours he saw. Eischeid drew these sampled landscapes at various times of the day to record the change in colour. “It was meant to symbolise the outward looking nature of the work that goes on at QMRI. What goes on here doesn't stop here but always has to be translated outward to the general population,” Eischeid states.

The second is a watercolour drawing that uses loading dye (used to colour DNA and protein samples) as the blue pigment in the artwork. Eischeid diluted the watercolour to achieve 11 different shades, applying them onto a giant grid. The grid is made up of 21,600 tiny rectangles, based on the proportions of Eischeid’s own height and width, himself being the most willing subject. The proportions form the basis of a repeating pattern of ever-larger rectangles. “The concept was to represent a range of scales” - an idea Eischeid distilled from the 40 or so interviews he laboured through with PhD students, post-docs and top-level scientists.

This idea did not cemented instantly he affirms. “I was struggling for a few weeks on this [idea] and I was starting to get pretty nervous...I just wasn’t being inspired.” So how did inspiration hit him? “By trying to do nothing. It's about being open to anything and staying accessible to wherever that source of inspiration is going to come from. It’s scary but exciting!” he notes, especially since having to open himself up to a lot of new science. Eischeid is no foreigner to scientific rigour sporting a background in geology, but cardiovascular science is radically different.

The themes present throughout Eicheid’s art, with their universality, are very important aspects of the thought processes involved in both of these works. In them, Eischeid purifies the idea of a line. “Using the line, a very simple element enables a variety of ways to express phenomena or aspects of the landscape. Taking that line and making it do a bit of hard work, being something more than just putting pencil to paper makes it much more meaningful than just a line.” This is not such a bizarre notion considering Eischeid undertook an 8-year stint in landscape architecture between his transition from undergraduate geology to current MFA in Art, Space and Nature at the Edinburgh College of Art. Lines in landscape architecture are heavily used; however the idea is novel enough to use them as an artistic tool representing such concepts he has.

Yet how did this idea formulate in Eischeid’s neuronal network? He visualises this process very eloquently, imagining two cones; one cone pointing downwards hitting the point of a cone from the bottom that points upwards. The top cone holds many ideas that are conflicting and interacting with each other. He then condenses these ideas to a point or single concept. This leads to the bottom cone which represents an “ever increasing diameter and hopefully an ever increasing richness of the idea’s execution” he insists.

For Eischeid’s bigger piece, the point at which both cones convene was in the conceptual representation of scale, collectively signifying the idea that research is “eventually translated to ever more complex organisms with the aim of improving human health. So whilst the researchers are thinking on the molecular level they always have to be thinking of how it may affect the human population.”

This two-cone model can also be extended to his career progression. Geology has qualities that overlap with landscape architecture; however, when he first took drawing classes he felt he was using a different part of his brain. He transitioned into art which seemed “far less of a switch”. Due to his scientific background Eischeid now feels as if he could work like a scientist whilst being more open to the method of asking and answering questions.

We now have to address whether this ‘artistic’ sincerity is applicable to scientific research. Could the creativity of science, where scientists might imagine what questions they yearn to ask and how to answer them, be aided by the thought processes behind compelling art? These questions have intrigued me ever since I first saw a piece of science-inspired art. Perhaps like Eischeid believes, ‘It’s being open that's the important part’, allowing you to be taken by inspiration through all possible angles.

Edward Duca is a PhD Student in the Centre for Cardiovascular Science

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