Gathering STEAM

Submitted on December 1, 2020

By Elizabeth Labiner

The arts are sometimes held up as the polar opposite to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) on the creative and academic spectrum, but projects across disciplines demonstrate over and over that such a distinction is tired and overly simplistic. Here at UArizona, four graduate students have been working in pairs to exemplify the exciting potential of collaboration between arts and STEM fields. The collaborations grew out of competitive proposals that were funded by the Graduate Center, the College of Fine Arts, and the College of Science. Annalysa Lovos and Rebecca Thompson comprise one dyad; Victoria Luizzi and Lucy Mugambi another. 

Lovos is in the Psychology Department on the Cognition and Neural Systems Track, which is a non-clinical research track. Lovos’s interests stem in part from her background as a teacher: “My research is focused on sleep and memory in teenagers and young adults, in typically developing populations and persons with intellectual and developmental disorders.” Thompson is in Applied Intercultural Arts Research (AIAR), a graduate interdisciplinary program, whose work focuses on personal health narratives and studies on the effects of art interventions during health crises. She explains, “I am interested in how the arts can aid resilience during a health crisis and provide tools for future stressful health challenges. Definitions of health encompass one’s spiritual, mental, physical and sociological well-being.” Thompson is also interested in cultural differences in definitions of health, as well as differences in how the arts intersect with healing. 

Lovos and Thompson came to the project eager to work together and combine their interests. Thompson is always excited for opportunities to collaborate in her role as a public artist, and sees the current rhetoric separating arts and STEM as a modern mindset that needs readjusting: 

I have been wondering why since the time of the Renaissance, we’ve slowly allowed the separation of the arts and sciences into distinctly different specializations. In times past, artists such as Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Leonardo Da Vinci were scientists, inventors, business owners and makers of monumental, timeless works of cultural beauty, technological astuteness and political influence. I wanted the opportunity to reclaim that collaborative spirit in this modern age of creative intelligence.

Lovos adds, 

As a teacher for four years, I saw the beneficial effects of integrating academic and arts education for my students. We integrated artistic rendering of every academic subject into our curriculum through drawing, music, scupting, painting, movement. The students enjoyed this and it gave them multiple ways to connect with the content in ways rooted in their own experience. Through this I came to see the arts as so helpful to learning and memory and an essential component of human life in general.

Thompson had already begun a project exploring the intersections of sound, visuals, ecology and healthcare environments when the opportunity to collaborate arose. Together, Lovos and Thompson developed a community collaboration project with the Desert Museum and the University of Arizona Cancer Center. Lovos explains, “We are testing an artistically-designed nature video, shot at the Desert Museum, as an intervention in the Cancer Center to assess whether Sonoran desert imagery is associated with reductions in stress, pain, or blood pressure levels.” In doing this, Thompson notes, they have multiple goals: “The primary goal is to provide a nature-based art intervention to reduce stress for cancer patients, healthcare workers and visitors to the UA Cancer Center. Another goal is to create unique community partnerships which can be sustained beyond our initial study.”

Victoria Luizzi is in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology program, studying microbial mediation of species interactions. “Basically,” she says, “in most cases, we’re used to noticing, thinking about, and studying interactions between species we can see such as a hummingbird visiting a flower. But the macroscopic partners in these interactions have diverse communities of microbes living in and on their bodies, and it’s becoming increasingly evident that these microbes have the potential to affect both their hosts and the interactions their hosts have with other species.” Lucy Mugambi, in the Art and Visual Culture program, is interested in working with marginalized communities. Mugambi’s current research interests focus on how the barriers between students with disabilities and their traditionally-abled peers can be bridged in the Kenyan school system.

Luizzi and Mugambi initially came to their partnership with different ideas of what they might pursue together. Mugambi recalls, “At first, I wanted someone who I could work with to create natural dyes and paints from the purple cactus fruit which I had seen at Biosphere 2. What I had in mind was to create organic dyes and paints that could be used by children with disabilities.” When she and Luizzi met, however, the cactus fruit was no longer in season. Luizzi then shared her work studying the nesting strategies of leafcutter bees, and the pair explored campus to find areas in which the leafcutter bees had built their structures. Mugambi was taken by the shapes created by the bees’ cuts, as well as the precision of their work. The leaves inspired her art, leading her to create works evocative of both the leaves remaining on a plant after having been cut by the bees as well as the construction of the nests from the neatly-cut pieces. 

Looking ahead, Mugambi sees enormous potential in artistic and scientific collaborations. She envisions holistic learning as an outcome from any number of projects, musing, “We could create a collaborative visual essay about the lifecycle of the leafcutter bees, or make more artwork based on nature and species interactions. This work could also be useful for outreach, perhaps putting a spotlight on an underappreciated native bee.” 

Likewise, Lovos and Thompson are excited by their work and the directions in which they might continue with it. They discovered they weren’t alone in their aims and approach. As Lovos explains, “An exciting discovery we made through our research as we designed our interdisciplinary project is that there already exists a small but growing field of inquiry in the overlap of our respective fields. We found websites and conferences devoted to neuroaesthetics as well as journal articles detailing research and reviews of evidence-based design.” Thompson adds, “The beauty of this project is that it continues to get better and better. We were just awarded a small REAP project grant to add original music and more video editing to our work. We have been able to deepen our knowledge and literature reviews related to stress, nature-themed interventions, art and resilience during health crises. We have developed professional forms for healthcare protocols, and we have added a narrative component to collect a small sample of interviews related to resilience.” Though the pandemic has made their research and project growth more difficult, both Lovos and Thompson remain committed and excited by the growth of their work. 

The exciting contrast between the students’ backgrounds has led to remarkable, unique projects that highlight the best possibilities of merging science and art. The pairs’ work exemplifies the interdisciplinary work being done by graduate students across the university, all of which celebrates deepening understandings between individuals and communities, and adds to the beauty exhibited and the knowledge gained by breaking down false barriers between fields.