Discovering the Art of Biology

March 30, 2018

Like many students who choose a liberal arts college, Julia Shangguan ’18 wasn’t set on any one major when she arrived at Grinnell. Then she took Professor Jackie Brown’s introductory biology course on prairie restoration. At Grinnell, anyone potentially interested in biology starts with Bio 150, a hands-on course that gives them a taste of what research is actually like in the lab and field.

After a semester of learning about data collection, how to write a scientific paper, and how to present her work, Shangguan had a feeling that biology was for her. “After I realized I was having too much fun sharing my final project during a poster presentation, I decided I wanted to continue in the sciences,” she says.

But she still felt that something was missing — she had grown up taking private art lessons, and missed having a creative outlet. So she decided she would double major, declaring both biology and studio art. Shangguan was happy with her major choices, but initially saw them as two distinct interests.

That changed in Hawaii in the summer of 2016.

Studying Damselflies in Hawaii

The summer following her second year, Shangguan traveled to the Big Island to do a Mentored Advanced Project (MAP) with Brown, studying color differences in damselflies. Brown and his former student, Idelle Cooper ’01, had been awarded a National Science Foundation grant for their research, and were using part of the funds to create opportunities for student engagement.

To Shangguan’s surprise, her artistic training kicked in while she was traversing the rocky streams of the remote Pacific island in search of her study subject. Her ability to complete quick, accurate sketches of her field sites came in handy when she needed to come back for more data, and her artist’s observation training gave her a keen eye for details.

“I had to distinguish between the environment’s hues so I could spot the tiny damselflies,” she says.

Such overlap was hardly surprising to Cooper. Currently assistant professor of biology at James Madison University, Cooper also double majored in art and biology as a student at Grinnell. She frequently puts her drawing talents to use to visualize her own research, and is eager to emphasize how art and science can complement one another. That’s why she suggested that the NSF grant could be the perfect opportunity to showcase how artistic practice and biological research intersect.

“Every NSF grant is evaluated in terms of both its intellectual impact and its broader impact,” says Brown. So, when he and Cooper applied for funding for their damselfly research, they also applied for funding to help support an exhibition at the Faulconer Gallery.

Finding Artists for the Faulconer Gallery

Making Life Visible: Art, Biology, and Visualization took years of dedicated effort to become a reality. Brown co-curated the exhibition with Lesley Wright, director of the Faulconer Gallery, with the help of Shangguan and another student, Rita Clark ’18. Brown and Wright saw the exhibition as a chance to build on their history of collaborative teaching about the history and potential of the art/science interface.

“The best shows at Faulconer are the ones that have strong partnerships across campus,” says Wright.

The very same summer that Shangguan conducted her research in Hawaii, she was invited to work closely with Wright to find potential artists for the exhibition. Her job was to ensure that Making Life Visible represented a broad range of biological inquiry in various artistic mediums.

“It was exciting — and reassuring — to see that many individuals already recognize the beauty of an arts and sciences union,” says Shangguan.

Clark, who helped draft artist biographies for the catalogue and corresponded with artists with work in the exhibition, agrees. “To me, this is a very powerful union and it is at the heart of any effort trying to bring our climatological and environmental degradation realities to the public’s consciousness,” she says.

Making Life Visible is on display until June 10 at the Faulconer Gallery.

Julia Shangguan ’18 is a studio art and biology double major from Portland, Ore. Rita Clark ’18 is a biology major from Granada, Nicaragua.