BIO 196, The Senior Reflection, offers students the opportunity to complete a capstone project over the course of three quarters. To find out more about TSR click here.
According to the directors of The Senior Reflection (TSR), Andrew Todhunter and Dr. Susan McConnell, the idea for the class came in response to the age-old Stanford question: How do you bridge the fuzzy—techy divide?
One answer, says Todhunter, is to “have scientists do art.” Both Todhunter and McConnell have plenty of experience when it comes to integrating art and science. As an author and journalist, Andrew has a knack for presenting science in a style accessible to the casual reader. His work has been featured on the cover of National Geographic and his book, A Meal Observed, won the PEN USA Literary Award for creative nonfiction. Sue is a developmental neurobiologist and an accomplished wildlife photographer. She views her photography as purposeful, rooted in science with a conservation emphasis. Her photos were featured in Smithsonian magazine in November 2010.
Not surprisingly, Andrew and Sue’s goal was to create a course that kept the science rigorous and the art serious. With this in mind, in 2010, they launched TSR, a yearlong capstone project offered through the Biology department (although the program is open to all majors). During the three-quarter sequence, students complete a scientific project and use artwork to showcase their findings, culminating in an exhibition in the spring. Each student selects two faculty mentors to assist them in the design and implementation of their project—one for the science side and the other for the art portion.
What exactly does it look like when a scientist does art? I pictured students constructing abstract collages of multicolored test tubes, or perhaps inducing yeast colonies to proliferate in intricate geometric patterns. Andrew and Sue invited me to attend a class to find out what TSR is really all about.
So, a few weeks ago I biked down to the fish-bowl-windowed Glibert Hall to witness the fusion of art and science for myself. Just a few minutes after I walked in and introduced myself to the section, a senior Biology student, Ian Markham, entered the room toting a seven-foot kelp frond model. I could sense that things were about to get interesting.
The goal of Ian’s TSR project is to illustrate the amazing biodiversity of kelp forests, and to show how the different organisms of this unique marine environment coexist. A certified diver, Ian spent time during fall and winter quarters meticulously observing and photographing Bay Area kelp forests.
With the bulk of his scientific research well underway, Ian is now focused on the creative expression of his project. He plans to construct his own kelp forest—one you can experience without a tank and mask—by combining his model kelp frond with photographs of marine life he captured on his dives. The frond he brought to class consisted of several pieces of wire, woven together to form the kelp stock. His plan is to mold, glaze, and fire ceramic petals, to replace the current Styrofoam placeholders.
Ian used his workshop time during section to ask questions and get feedback from the four other students in the class, as well as Andrew and Sue. What angle should the kelp frond be placed at to mimic its natural bend in the current? How should the photographs be displayed? Should they hang from the ceiling of the display, or be posted on a wall behind the frond?
Even though I only visited a single TSR class, I already saw the value of the workshop-based class format. According to Andrew, the workshops teach students how to take feedback—a difficult, but invaluable skill. Rather than directing student projects down a particular path, Sue noted that the conversations during workshops stimulate “new avenues” to pursue.
McConnell emphasizes that unlike a more traditional research project, “you are not constrained by a specific hypothesis and experimental protocol…students learn a huge amount about themselves by expanding into a creative realm that is the unknown, while using the science that they’ve learned previously as the underpinning of everything.” The students’ projects can grow from anything that “captured their curiosity or their passion.
During the section I sat in on, I saw a wide range of passions on display. One student wrote and constructed a pop-up book dedicated to protecting the Oceanic White-tip Reef Shark, a species endangered by overfishing. Another project, tackled the dangers of hookworm, a parasite that afflicts millions of people worldwide, and causes diarrhea, fevers, and anemia. Hookworms often penetrate the host through the feet, so the project revolved around a kinetic typography (a kind of animated video), which described how providing shoes to children in developing nations stops the hookworm cycle before it begins. There was even a sand animation, in which the artist warned about the dangers of Schistosomiasis by using her fingers to trace a story in a thin layer of sand.
After my brief experience with TSR I came away feeling that the program represents what Stanford, at its core, is all about. It’s about using the scientific way of thinking to explore and research a particular issue, problem, or idea that speaks to you. Equally important, although it’s often forgotten, it’s about using your creativity and artistic mind to share your passion with others, to inform them, and to help them.
In a certain sense, SUSSingsustainability@Stanford was founded with the same principles in mind. Science alone won’t solve today’s environmental challenges. At SUSS we hope to create an environment where science inspires concern and art1 translates science in ways that inspire action.
As Todhunter pointed out, when you mix the arts and sciences “everybody gains. The student will be better educated, the world will be better served… our scientists will be stronger and more creative, our artists will be more informed and more grounded… We need to share all this knowledge—all this experience.”
1 Broadly understood so as to include written and visual expression
Alex Martinez is a sophomore majoring in Human Biology with an Area of Concentration in Sustainable Development. He is s a student editor for SUSSingSustainability@Stanford. When he is back home in Montana, Alex enjoys hiking, skiing, fishing, and camping with his family and friends.