Art & Science: a symbiotic relationship celebrated by many artists, but too few scientists.

The importance of poop

Recently I attended and spoke at UCLA’s Art|Sci Center + Lab LASER series.  I was approached because they had an exhibit called “Waste Matters” by New York based artist Kathy High.  I won’t write about the exhibit itself, except to say that it was about poop.  Well, to be more exact it was an exhibit on the symbiosis between our microbiome and our bodies, inspired by the recent PR surrounding fecal microbiota transplants (FMT).  You see, Kathy High has suffered from Crohn’s disease and when you have a disease like Crohn’s you spend a lot of time thinking about food, treatments, flares, the future and yes, poop. 

Artists appreciate connectivity 

The short series of lectures following the exhibit highlighted symbiotic relationships and the growing influence of bio-hacking, big business and the bottom line in biotechnological advances.  What impressed me, as the lone scientist in the room, was the way these artists perceived and viewed our microbiome.  It was much more real and accurate than what I see in science today.  The conversation and dialogue really was about community and collaboration.  It was about what drives ecological harmony or disharmony.  Could technology help us solve these problems or is it moving too fast? And they seemed to understand and acknowledge that the search for a single organism causing disease is a fool’s errand. 

Where did all the scientists go?

A thought I was having the other morning, as I was trying to motivate to work on a manuscript (it didn’t work because I couldn't stop thinking and began writing this post), was: Why was I the only scientist at this lecture?  What is it about merging science and art that draws a great crowd of artists and art students but no scientific faculty or post-docs?  It's our duty as health educators and thinkers to attend these events and to speak on behalf of research and to clarify un-truths and false perceptions regarding what the public hears or knows about scientific discovery. 

Research is also about the patients

Then another question crept into my mind: How many patients who suffer from the diseases have you actually met and spoken with?  These people who are one of those statistics used in the Significance section of your grant.  In the past few months I have met a number of patients with IBD, and I can tell you that they have very clear ideas of where science and technology need to go to improve their health and their quality of life because they actually have the disease. It's strange to think that there are probably more scientists than not who have written “these results are expected to drive discovery for potential therapies to treat (insert disease of choice),” but have never spoken with a patient or stepped foot into a clinic. 

Human disease should be more than just a tagline in our grant applications; it should be the driving force behind our research. And we as scientists must get out of the laboratory, outside of our comfort zone and fully interact with patients and families struggling with disease in an effort to develop us as citizen scientists.  

For more information on Kathy High, visit her website

A fascinating podcast with Kathy: Bioart imitating life imitating bioart: A conversation with bioartist Kathy High.

For more information on UCLA's Sci|Art Center, visit their website

Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses - especially learn how to see. Realise that everything connects to everything else.
— Leonardo da Vinci

photo credit: a. parker