The Creative Life (STEM-style)

By: Elizabeth Forbes

As a kid growing up in woodsy New England, I didn’t necessarily see myself growing up to become an ecologist.  In fact, I desperately wanted to be what I then perceived to be the opposite of a scientist: a professional artist.  For a long time, that career path was the one I determinedly worked towards, and I began college intending to major in studio art.  While my interest in the arts never waned, I gradually came to realize that I was spending a lot of time in the biology department, excitedly registering for field courses, and beginning to look into summer research opportunities in marine science.  This gradual migration towards the natural sciences resulted in my graduating with a biology degree, a concentration in ecology, and a fervor to keep exploring the research world.

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Drawings from lecture notes. I don’t know what that animal is, either…

What’s funny to me now is that the longer I work in ecological research, the more I realize how artistic my colleagues are.  I don’t just mean creative thinking, though that’s true of course; all of the scientists I admire most are creative writers, makers, and doers.  More specifically, I know visual artists, musicians, crafters, and performers who have taken a scientific turn in their careers.  Given my own background, I am constantly thrilled (and no longer surprised) when I encounter a kindred artistic spirit in the ecological research world.

So why are so many artistic folks going into the sciences?  I think that the seemingly wide chasm between the arts and the natural sciences is only real in our imaginations.  Artists and scientists both rely on deep reservoirs of creativity and ingenuity to accomplish our work.  We encounter questions we are interested in exploring, decide on a medium, and make several rough drafts.  After much editing, constructive critique, and standing back to scrutinize our work from various angles, we present a finished product.  Those products aren’t immutable; artists and scientists frequently change their style, encounter new ways to explore their work, collaborate with others for fresh outlooks, and find creative solutions to potentially message-occluding problems that arise.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve called upon my arts background to help me become a better ecologist.  My career in science began in college with that summer research position at a marine biology lab in Boston, Massachusetts; it was there I learned that ecological field work often requires the liberally creative use of commonplace items (like Tupperware), repurposed for science experiments, and that my training as an artist helped me think outside the box (no pun intended…okay, definitely pun intended).  As my research career continued I caught myself drawing in the margins of lab notebooks, using my tendency to think in pictures to help me better understand calculations, remember how to configure laboratory equipment, and envision the spatial setup of future field experiments.  After college, while working as a research assistant for a marine biologist, I realized I was using my art education all the time: to make figures for my boss, to puzzle through complex data sets, and to make visually appealing posters and presentations.IMG_5020

I surprised myself with the parallels between my artistic life and my scientific one, but more importantly I found that tons of my peers practice art too.  In fact, that revelation is one of the reasons I decided to pursue a graduate degree in ecology: the longer I worked in research, the more I realized that I wasn’t giving up art in order to do so.  I was living it, albeit in a slightly different capacity than my childhood self had envisioned.  My boundaries as an ecologist are pushed every day, and refocusing my artistic lens to focus on scientific pursuits helps me to meet them.  Now, I’m a PhD student studying ecological networks and the impacts of large wildlife loss on ecosystem carbon dynamics.  I still use art every day, and I encounter scientists who moonlight as artists all the time.  The difference is, now I can see how natural a fit the STEM fields are for artistic types; turns out that it’s as an ecologist that I’ve really found my people.

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