Composing and Constructing a Journey Into STEM

By: Elizabeth Forbes

Imagine the career trajectory of what of what you might consider a stereotypical scientist.  Did you include 16 years of classical guitar training and a graduate degree in music composition?  Maybe not, and that’s exactly what makes Mark Hirsch such an unconventional scientist.  Hirsch’s career path has wound a circuitous route from the fine arts, to technology, to engineering, and has (for now) settled at the intersection of those fields.  As a graduate student in UC Santa Barbara’s Media Art and Technology department (MAT), he can hone all of these skills simultaneously in order to better create art inspired by science, and science infused with his artistic sensibilities.

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Mark Hirsch, a PhD student in UCSB’s Media Arts and Technology department

The researchers in MAT have backgrounds that range from animation and architecture, to engineering and computer science.  Their common ground is a passion for technology and using cutting-edge methods in their work.  Why embark on a research career in such a technologically-driven field, as a classically-trained composer and musician?  While the jump initially seems far, leaning towards STEM was the next logical step in Hirsch’s artistic journey.  As his ideas for the kind of art he wanted to create evolved, he found himself stymied by the field-specific skill sets he had gained previously, and therefore limited in the ways he could express himself. Performing music thus gave way to composition; composition eventually interacted with visual art and installation pieces.  Over time he needed skills in animation and video, and coding, and engineering to create the environments that he wanted his art to be presented in.  As Hirsch explains, he “kept needing to learn more things to accomplish the artistic expression [he] was after”.

Which is how Hirsch found himself enmeshed in the STEM world at UCSB as a graduate student.  In MAT, he describes an environment where the barriers between fields, particularly art and technology, are actively broken down.  Researchers don’t just flirt with other fields; they are encouraged to drop their expertise to explore new tools and concepts entirely.  This atmosphere appeals to Hirsch, whose goals involve attaining the same proficiency that he felt studying music, but in coding, engineering, design, and more.  He wants to use these tools like instruments in a new kind of orchestra: by deploying them when needed, he will be able to execute artistic visions without being limited by medium-specific skills.

How has Hirsch’s artistic background impacted his transition into the STEM world?  For one, it’s made him less cautious about feeling intimidated.  “One thing I learned as a music student is to constantly put yourself with players who are better than you are; the way you learn and get better is to get your butt kicked.”  Similarly, in MAT “it can be really intimidating to be around so many brilliant engineers, but my experience as a music student gives me the courage to put myself amongst them and learn from them”.

On the docket for his research career in MAT is exploring mediums that are often considered impractical from an engineering standpoint, and repurposing them for artistic endeavors.  For example, his interests in 3D printing are less in the realm of plastics, and more so with granular, fluid, or organic materials.  While fabrication such as 3D printing typically aims to produce durable products, by using materials like these he wants to introduce a temporal element to 3D art (like sculpture).  Traditionally, these are objects that are fixed in space and time; by using mediums that are prone to some kind of decomposition, 3D art becomes both spatially and temporally variable.  Hirsch suspects his interest in the cast-off materials of engineering comes from his music background, since “music is such a time-based art form”.  By exploring alternative mediums for 3D printing, he seeks to make impractical engineering processes into “plausible art pieces”.

Click here to check out one of Hirsch’s technology-influenced art pieces

In following a rather unconventional path into a STEM field, Hirsch is becoming a rather unconventional scientist.  However, he’s among like-minded scientists in MAT, whose aforementioned range of expertise is staggering.  By combining this swath of experience to tackle art, science, and the many intersections between the two, the department as a whole provides examples of effective data visualization, interpretation, and science communication to scientists on campus.  And, by explicitly tearing down academic barriers, MAT and its researchers demonstrate that there is no such thing as a stereotypical scientist.

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