No matter what your profession or passion, design is a part of it, even the most STEM'y ones. Allison Chen, RISD '15, believes that scientific illustration is a definition of STEAM... and she's right! It's Science, Technology, Engineering (how the body works in the case of biological systems) and Math ... and Art! This great post, from her STEAM Stories project (please follow it!) shows us how art and design are so embedded in our daily lives and our work. Enjoy! And follow her and read these great stories.
Before modern film and computers, scientific phenomena were recorded with meticulous drawings and paintings for centuries. These illustrations illuminated the unobservable or unclear, often answering, “Will that plant kill me?” or “What’s going on inside my body?”
Of course, we still ask these questions, and can now use new media to answer. Based in Seattle, Washington, Eleanor is a designer that puts a modern spin on scientific illustration. Having received her bachelor’s in molecular biology and done visual art since high school, she combines both passions to create stunning animated infographics.
“I think visuals really help explain science to the general public,” Eleanor said. “If you haven’t gotten a degree in it, it’s really hard to understand topics like global warming or GMOs. It’s important for actual experts to explain everything.”
When she isn’t working for clients such as Huffington Post and the Gates Foundation, Eleanor has the freedom to design whatever subjects strike her interest. These interests manifest in both animated and static diagrams that she documents on her blog tabletopwhale.com, where you can also find a tutorial that shows how she works with Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop.
One animation, 3 Different Ways to Breathe, compares human lungs with those of birds and grasshoppers. Watching the animation, you can see how birds can take in oxygen even while exhaling, and how air is transported directly into the grasshopper’s tissue cells.
“I had no idea that things breathed differently,” Eleanor said, “or that the way humans breathe isn’t even the most efficient.”
Another animation, How to Build a Human, depicts the growth of a human fetus from fertilization to birth.
“I really wanted everything to be visible at the same time,” Eleanor said, explaining why she chose the spiral format. “When I was reading about it in college, I had some trouble figuring it out in my head. It was described in the text but I wanted everything on one page.”
And perhaps one of the most visually interesting, Flight Videos Deconstructed compares the flight patterns of five flying species and depicts the curves their wings make in space.
As noted on the infographic, the project was an observational exercise and doesn’t represent any scientifically accepted information.
“You definitely can’t draw conclusions from these videos alone,” Eleanor said, “you have no idea if the animals were injured, how old they are, if they’re even flying normally. In an actual study they would’ve taken 30-40 animals in the same room in the same conditions, done in a lab so that a computer can map it.”
This serves as an important reminder that imagery can always be misinterpreted or contrived, no matter how beautiful. Eleanor has noticed a fair amount of science-related art out there that isn’t accurate, and encourages more communication between artists and scientists.
This Fall, Eleanor is returning to school to get her PhD thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation. Best of luck Eleanor, let’s hope your research will inspire more infographics in the future!
Allison is a designer and writer (soon to be) based in Chicago as a DFA (Design for America) Fellow. She seeks to design for learning and play to help us better understand each other and the world around us. While earning her BFA in industrial design at RISD she co-led the DFA RISD|Brown studio 2014-2015, worked on STEAM learning tools, interned at various organizations, and helped build a solar-powered house for Solar Decathlon Europe 2014. Children are her favorite users, and she enjoys designing for the inner child in all of us. Through her STEAM Stories blog series, she hopes to bring together a community of passionate STEAM do-ers to inspire future interdisciplinary work in hobby, education, and industry.
Some of today's top CEOs were history, political science, sociology, chinese and music majors in college. They are leading global airline, chemical, healthcare, pharmaceutical, and financial companies, among others. There are very practical reasons for a Liberal Arts degree, and Samanee Mahbub (Brown '18) thinks the reasons are crystal clear. Let's hear it from her.
A “Practical” Liberal Arts Degree
“Samanee, what on earth are you going to do with a history degree? I’m not sending you to college to become a historian.”
Those were the words my mother told me when I mentioned the idea of switching from the ever so pragmatic economics major to my newfound passion in studying the past. Not exactly resounding support.
As a college student in this technological era, I’ve felt the constant burden of having to pursue a “practical” degree. My uncle pushes engineering. My brother insists I take computer science. My dad says if I don’t like STEM, then economics is the best option for a woman who wants to pursue business. Yet my mind doesn’t light up the same way in microeconomics as it does learning about the overlapping women’s movement, anti-war movement and civil rights movements of the 1960s.
Educating myself about the fall of the Roman Empire may not provide direct, transferable skills to the corporate office, the quirky startup, or any particular field of work. But I argue it gives me something even better: critical thinking skills.
Critical thinking skills. Quite the buzzword these days. The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking defines it as an “intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” I have a much simpler and arguably, more relevant definition: the ability to rationally use a mental toolkit to analyze a situation with which one might not have had previous experience.
History provides me with this mental toolkit. Through my classes, I’ve been forced to question the intentions of authors of primary sources, understand biases present within my readings and even my professor, observe the tone of speakers in context to their audience, and seek out further information to support the claims I make when I write my history papers. Now let me change some of the words in this paragraph and show you how my history major will prepare me for the business world.
Through my classes, I’ve been forced to question the intentions of [investors who want to pursue a particular M&A deal], understand biases present within [reports that do not recognize key factors that affect a company’s growth], observe the tone of my [interviewer] in context [of my interview], and seek out further information to support the claims I make when [I recommend a company to diversify their revenue streams in order to save their bottom line].
The situations I study in history are different, but as seen above, the skills used are the same. History, philosophy, sociology, or any liberal arts degree will not prevent me from pursuing a career in business. These disciplines provide me with a tool kit to navigate any situation I am presented, and in my opinion, make me a better employee.
So I’m going to take that Shakespeare class (or maybe not), I will learn about Karl Marx’s theory of alienation, and I’m going to delve further into Middle Eastern history. These are my passions. Even though they don’t directly align with my career aspirations, they will not take me out of the game. A career advisor once told me that those who pursue liberal arts majors and enter finance, consulting or technology are not the exceptions. They are the norm.
Therefore, I urge everyone who loves the liberal arts to pursue their passion. These pursuits are not lost in a world where STEM is rising. You will succeed because of the thinking skills you’ve acquired. And if you’re still not convinced, just remember, the CEO of Goldman Sachs is a government major.
Samanee Mahbub is originally from Bangladesh but has explored over 19 countries. She's dreams of leading her country out of poverty. While in high school, she started a 50-student organization supporting Acid Survivors Foundation to help rehabilitate burn survivors of acid attacks. She is now the core programming director for the Brown Entrepreneurship Program and Head of Design for The Intercollegiate Finance Journal. She's spending the summer in Dhaka doing microfinance.
STEM to STEAM - the "A" in STEAM stands for Art/Design...and Afghanistan Air Force. So thrilled to write this with my amazing friend Col. Matt Fritz about how STEAM was critical to re-inventing the Afghan Air Force! Yes, some parts of our military are design thinkers! Thank you Matt & Switch and Shift.
"We don’t think of the military as a STEAMy organization, but parts of it are. As Deb described STEAM and its role in for/not-for-profit businesses, B2B and B2C, Matt realized that much of his work in his recent deployment to Afghanistan depended on STEAM. Building a new and resurgent Afghan Air Force from the ground up, while simultaneously flying it and using it in the fight, is no typical task. It is a combination of the complex, complicated and dynamic, to put it mildly."
What is your image of an inventor or innovator? A man alone in a lab? Increasing evidence shows most innovation comes from two or more people…one of whom might even be a woman! We stereotype innovators as men and mainly in STEM* products.
A quick quiz – who invented the following: the circular saw, COBOL and the compiler, the windshield wiper, Kevlar and a radial keyboard for the paralyzed? [Answers at the end of the post]
Three years ago, Whitney Johnson asked me how I felt as the only female partner in my VC firm. I’d never thought about it before. I never felt any discrimination or lack of respect from my partners. From how I was raised through my education and my career at Bell Labs and AT&T, I never felt any gender bias. Maybe it was there and I was just insensitive. I investigated – looked, listened and learned…and realized it was still an issue in the 21st century!
In June 2013, Vivek Wadhwa and Farai Chideya invited women to crowd-create a book on women innovators by sharing their own stories. I submitted one (Chpt 3, Disrupting My Way Through Life). Fast-forward ~ Innovating Women launches today! Vivek and Farai have curated a collection of personal, powerful, inspiring, encouraging, disruptive, and challenging stories of women who grabbed the status quo by the horns. The stories are from and about women from all over the world, in STEM, investing, non-profits and STEAM.
The stories, including one by America’s new CTO and former VP at Google[X] Megan Smith, are the authentic voices of women who have persevered, overcome, created, and innovated their careers and accomplishments. This book is full with lessons for women, men, girls, boys, teachers, leaders, managers, even politicians on how to overcome stereotypes, stigmas, and artificial distinctions. These lessons are being applied today and barriers are breaking down.
I am privileged to see changes first-hand. Last April, I helped at the Assistive Tech Makeathon for students to create communication solutions for people who can’t communicate (like ALS). The rapid design-prototyping-iterating process resulted in several potential hardware and software products. Three freshman women engineers won the software award for an easy, attractive and quick radial keyboard!
Get Innovating Women. Read it, share it, discover, encourage and empower women and girls to create more stories so we can unleash the talent needed to solve the wicked problems facing our world. Keep the stories coming!
*STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math; STEAM = STEM + [Art + Design]
- The circular saw: Tabitha Babbitt in 1813
- COBOL and the compiler: Admiral Grace Murray Hopper (yes, Admiral!) in early 1950s
- The windshield wiper: Mary Anderson in 1903
- Kevlar: Stephanie Kwolek in 1964
- Radial Keyboard: Margaret Mathieu, Katie Hsai, Kassie Wang in 2014, Brown ‘17
Indeed, we can design a better world! Since 2008, RISD and Brown students have united innovators around the globe, across many disciplines in a common goal, "Building a Better World".
Oceans deep hide rare
Blue Lobsters found in 'random'
I met Nick Mayer when ordering a gorgeous Blue Lobster print of his. I have this thing about Blue Lobsters, seeing them in Maine and as a metaphor for innovation in that this rare phenotype results from serendipity and random collisions of genes. Nick's art is an amazing and beautiful integration of art and biology in watercolor. Here is Nick's powerful story of how Science is Art and Art is Science.
Art and science have played an analogous, ever-present role in my evolution as a person, like two arms of a chromosome swinging in a cell’s cytoplasm during metaphase, at times distant then colliding and exchanging information.
As a child I always was interested in nature. I remember summer days catching frogs and turtles that in my nostalgia appear as a deep uninterrupted trance. I recall hours studying the illustrations of deep-sea fish in my Time Life Series book The Sea. Between the turtles, the illustrations in The Sea, and the romance of Treasure Island, I was launched on a trajectory that needed to seek out adventure, analyze the world through intense observation, and then make sense of it through drawing.
I rejected the status quo for a while seeking adventure aboard commercial fishing boats in Alaska and elsewhere, but eventually that adventure seeking turned inward. After receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees in biology, I spent two decades working as a scientist. I wore the hat of fisheries biologist, science teacher, environmental scientist, and even worked on an extraordinary robotics project, but in the end while the science jobs paid the bills, what I was really passionate about was painting. A year and a half ago I simply could not hold the cork on my 24/7 geyser of creativity any longer and took the plunge into working for myself as a full time artist. All of my experiences as a scientist have given me the background to be the artist I am today. The transition to being an artist was a natural progression.
In my mind art and science are so similar—the cornerstone skill of each is astute and reflective observation. Both science and art are ways of making sense of the world, physics could not exist without 3D modeling, anatomy could not exist without illustration. In early days science WAS art and pretty much that was it. Look at the painstakingly scientific, yet beautiful art of Ernst Haeckel. The work of the naturalist in Darwin’s time was to be an illustrator. Biology was the study of form and function and its resulting taxonomy. In Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle Part IV: Fish, the entirety of the text is a description of W Hawkins’ illustrations, “There are no scales on the snout or jaws, or between the eyes, or on the anterior portion of the suborbital . . .” (pg 4). The entirety of Grey’s Anatomy is the same, painstakingly astute descriptions of observations and the associated engravings.
All this connectivity makes me scratch my head and wonder why STEM wasn’t always STEAM and why such a distinction is made between science, stereotypically left brained/ logical/ necessary and art, seen as right brained/ touchy feely/ optional. My twenty years of work as a scientist has lead me to the conviction that science is subjective, based on context, and completely dynamic.
At first glance it is obvious that my work is highly influenced by science. It is influenced by the master pioneers in this genre like Haeckel, Hawkins, & Audubon, who inspire my work. While I am not the first person to have observed, painted, and classified a blue lobster, painting is the process by which I understand the blue lobster. Once I’ve stared at a seemingly random pattern on a fish’s back for hours and hours, there is always a point at which I realize that it is not random; there is a pattern here, its just a very complicated one. And then I paint it.
My most recent commissioned painting, a coelacanth, is a great example of this. The coelacanth is essentially a living dinosaur—based upon the fossil record it was thought to have gone extinct 80 million years ago and then a live specimen was caught in the Indian Ocean in 1938. They are the closest link between fish and the first amphibians, which made the transition from sea to land in the Devonian period. There is no other fish that looks remotely like a Coelacanth with their large head of bony plates, missing backbone, triangle-shaped spots, and small arms with hand-like fins on the ends. Since sightings are relatively rare, especially of live, unstressed specimens, I had a real struggle trying to find some accurate reference photos for the color of these creatures.
Oddly enough upon discussing the dilemma with my good friend Jon Council, the scientific consultant for a book I recently completed illustrating (Catalina Dive Buddies by Mike Rivkin), I learned that a friend of his, Laurent Ballesta, had just completed the world’s most extensive coelacanth expedition (speaking of serendipity and random collisions). Jon made the introduction. The coelacanth is a slow-growing deep water fish, inhabiting depths from 300 ft-1,000 ft. I was shocked to hear that Laurent Ballesta et al. as part of his Projet Gombessa dove to these depths with his team to gently capture the coelacanth in its natural habitat on film. Laurent shared his observations about the coelacanth’s color as well as some of his soon to be released photos of the coelacanth. These photos are without a doubt the best images of the species the world will have ever seen when they are released in his upcoming book on the expedition in 2014. The interplay of serendipity, science, and art resulted in the finished painting here.
Of course, as with most rare species discovered these days, the current status is not a pretty one. Despite the creation of a Marine Protected Area, the coelacanth are now being dredged from the depths by Japanese deep trawlers and the Tanzanian Port Authority has plans to create a deepwater port in the vicinity the sanctuary. I will be donating a portion of my entire Coelacanth print sales to Oceana, one of the most solid organizations dedicated to protecting the worlds oceans.
If you can't find what you're looking for, just create it! Don't let the world pigeon-hole you into linear paths...make your own. That's what Hanna McPhee did. She is an extraordinary kid and typical of the ones I get to hang out with. Hanna (Brown '14) created an independent concentration, Biologically Inspired Design and is working on her thesis. She is co-president of Brown's student initiative to incorporate the arts into STEM, STEAM and a project manager on Brown's solar decathlon "Techstyle Haus" team, of which about half are women! An oh, she also is a pole vaulter on the track and field team. This is Hanna's story of how she's working to create a common language to integrate design thinking with science and engineering.
Integrating Design Theory & the Scientific Process
I am sitting across the table from my thesis advisor. We stare at one another in silence, our faces reflecting equal levels of frustration. After a 15-minute debate on the differences between a parameter and a constraint, it has become apparent my advisor is an engineer, and I am not. My advisor and I meet weekly to discuss my research. Each week we inevitably hit a wall; expressing the same words, but interpreting them in entirely different ways. With a background in biology and design, my definition of details often do not align with an engineer’s. However, we both know the objectives of my thesis, and both want to work towards that goal (and diploma)
So why are we having such a difficult time communicating?
It starts with the realization that our different disciplines do not speak the same language. Up until the past few years, my education centered around finding a path and, for the most part, sticking to it. If you are good at math, you stay on the honors track through middle and high school to become a “math person”. Even later, with a liberal arts education, I felt swayed to identify myself solely as a “biology person”. There was never room for another subject like art, no space for speaking two languages fluently. My educational system created silos between the different disciplines. Once I chose one path, essentially my language, other subjects became foreign.
Connections are missing between these disciplines, and in particular between the arts and sciences. On almost every project I have worked on thus far, my analytical and creative teammates have struggled to connect. From deadlines to critical thinking, collaborating has been as difficult as a native English speaker interpreting Italian. Sure, perhaps some root words are similar. But you end up just speaking loudly at one another, waving your hands around as a flailing final attempt at communication.
Fortunately for me, I was given the opportunity to create my own concentration and fully integrate biology and design into one cohesive means of critical thinking. But it would be extremely naïve to think that type of interdisciplinary education can be implemented everywhere - and nor should it be. We still need the classically trained “quant jocks” as well as the “edgy creatives”. Without them, a melting pot of full-fledged hybrids such as myself would lose any sort of concrete base for reference.
So where do we go from here?
I believe each individual, no matter how much of a purist they may be in their respective field, should be responsible for entertaining interdisciplinary ideas. Exposing ourselves to different disciplines results in a better understanding of our peer’s work. With this deeper understanding, we create a greater means of respect. Whether that takes the form of double majoring, or simply taking a few electives, some threshold of interdisciplinary thought is important.
In an era where buzzwords like “collaboration” and “innovation” land you a job, its time to actually start flexing both sides of our brains. At the end of this journey, behind our various languages, it is surprising how similar my analytical and creative peers are. My STEM friends always shudder at the free flowing process of iterating and prototyping. My designers laugh at the time spent nit picking over numerical data, seemingly so far removed from the problem at hand. However, at the end of the day, both are following almost identical steps towards finding solutions. The proof can be found just looking at the scientific process alongside design theory.
Although one approach may rely more on quantifiable data and the other on a more “human” means of communication, step by step the two share striking similarities. Combining these two theories helps me personally make sense of my own analytical and creative brain. When they come together as one scientific and artistic critical thinking tool, the result is a deeper understanding of defining problems and finding solutions.
In short, the banter between myself and my advisor is not about the difference between parameters and constraints. It is about the exposure to a new language.
My thesis will teach me many things. But I sincerely believe my weekly exposure to my advisor’s brain – and all the neurotic details that come with it – will influence me the most when I walk out into the working world.