“We were raised to think that art is on one side and science is on the other,” said Jon Longtin, acting dean of Stony Brook University’s College of Engineering and Applied Science. “But that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Nicole Sampson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, described the intersection of art and science as a chance to “stretch your imagination as far as you can” and an important pathway into the future.
Two SBU professors representing very different disciplines collaborate to prove these points.
Ete Chan, Assistant Professor at Department of Biomedical Engineering, and teacher Nobuho Nagasawa from Art Department, work to leverage the inherent synergy between art and science. The result of their efforts can be seen in an innovative collaborative exhibition titled “STEM + Art = STEAMwhich can be seen in the central reading room of the Melville Library.
The installation features three biosignal-focused works that illustrate the influence of our bodies on technology, artistically represented. Longtin and Sampson shared their remarks at a special event on February 23, and the installation is on display until March 9.
“I was interested in the collaboration from the start,” Chan said. “That’s why I teach at a research institute like Stony Brook.
The seeds of the collaboration were planted when Luigia Than ’22, an electrical engineering student, began working with Nagasawa with the goal of incorporating her interest in art into her engineering work. They were soon joined by another student, biology major Ryan Chen ’24. Through Chen, Nagasawa met Chan in the spring of 2021, and they quickly struck up a partnership.
“Our goal is to provide mentorship to our students not only to complete science projects, but also to develop soft skills such as communication, teamwork, and time management,” Chan said. “Students gain hands-on experience that helps them in their career development.”
In less than a year, the initiative has grown to 14 students representing eight different university departments: art, biochemistry, biology, biomedical engineering, computer science, electrical engineering, computer engineering and cinema. The collaboration took an unexpected turn when Nagasawa had the opportunity to present an exhibit at the library during the Spring 22 semester.
“I was thinking having an exhibition in the library would bring in a wider audience,” she said, and her collaboration with the students and Professor Chan began. Their goal was to add an artistic component to the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education that Stony Brook is known for.
Nagasawa said not having a science background hasn’t been a problem and she appreciates the different benefits that each discipline brings to the other. “My artistic practice is transdisciplinary” she says. “I have always been interested in the synergy between art and science.”
Chan also recognizes how a completely different perspective can help add value to her work.
“Professor Nagasawa uses a different side of her brain when working on a project than me,” she said. “So when we work together, we have the ‘whole’ brain, which we can’t do individually.”
The fruit of the collaboration can be seen in the “STEAM Cabinet of Curiosity”, an idea born out of a brainstorming session in Chan’s genetic engineering class. She mentioned a possible DNA showcase and Nagasawa was inspired to create a design concept with electronics – Chan suggested expanding it to a 3D display with a double helix structure. The resulting interactive DNA model lights up depending on how fast the viewer’s heart is beating.
“We took an intangible visual – a heartbeat – and made it visible,” Chan said.
Than made the central sculpture and designed and assembled the electronics; Computer engineering major Summer Wang ’24 programmed the lights to respond to the sensor.
“It is the intersection of art and science, not only in the content of the exhibition, but also in the construction process, where the artistic perspective and the scientific perspective influenced the whole project” , said Than.
The propeller display followed in the footsteps of a similar project by Nagasawa, an interactive fiber optic outfit called Bio-Lux, created in 2016. Bio-Lux is a smart textile activated by the bodily rhythms of a pianist . Sensors on the performer’s body detect heartbeats, breathing and movement to act as triggers between the music and the illuminated outfit. For the library exhibit, Nagasawa worked with biology major Sarah Szabo ’22 and had the Bio-Lux interact with brain waves.
During the pandemic, when classes were remote, Nagasawa wanted her students to consider the role of an artist in society and taught a special thematic class called “Community Interactive Art: Socially Engaged Art in the Age of social distancing”. This evolved into a new course titled “Socially Engaged Art” which was approved by the program committee in 2021.
“The fundamental principle is that making art is an important social act and that the education of artists must include an awareness of their potential to connect with large audiences,” she said. “We should consider how art can contribute to humanity in tangible ways.”
A device called CiCaidA (Continuous Individual Crisis Aid Alert System) illustrates this point. Featured in the library, CiCaidA is a biomedical sensor wristband designed to monitor patients’ vital signs in real time with telemetry capabilities to alert healthcare workers to a central monitoring station. The prototype was designed and developed by Than, Chen, and electrical engineering major Cynthia Wu ’22.
“The device will be able to determine the general physiological stability of the wearer and send alerts if vital signs deviate from accepted thresholds,” Nagasawa said.
Chan and Nagasawa see the long-term benefits of working together.
“This is just the beginning for the two of us working together,” Chan said. “We just submitted a grant together to the National Science Foundation, which would further enhance our impact not only on college students, but also encourage college and high school students to learn about STEAM. I feel like the impact could be huge if we can make science more engaging and accessible.
“Critical questions posed by artists today include not only self-expression and craftsmanship, but also questions of gender, identity, community, values, politics and meaning,” added Nagasawa. “The role of an artist is to facilitate change. What can we do to change humanity? As an art teacher, I foster collaboration not only with professors like Dr. Chan in biomedical engineering, but also with people in computer science, electrical engineering, music, and others.
“Collaboration is an art in itself. Reach out and collaborate to grow as an artist and as a person. Because collaboration is going to be part of your life.