Students benefit from a little Monet with their math

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For a molecular, cellular, and developmental biology (MCDB) major, Chanthia Ma devotes a lot of her time to thinking about art.

The Yale sophomore — who is managing editor of Yale Scientific Magazine and spends hours in the lab at the Yale School of Medicine — is a trained artist who runs a STEM + Arts initiative at the Yale University Art Gallery to bring fellow science majors into the museum.

“We want to engage purely science majors who have not had any art experience or have never visited the art gallery,” said Ma, adding that while many museums and universities have had artists and scientists collaborate on art projects, STEM + Arts is aimed at students who might ask: Why would I want go to the art gallery?

“We believe students in the STEM majors — science, technology, engineering, and math — gain something by developing artistic insights, which will help them be more creative in their research,” said Ma. “It’s a different way of thinking.”

Ma should know. Although she is now a pre-med student in the MCDB neurobiology track, she studied fine arts for many years while growing up in New Jersey, even winning first place in national art contests. “I’ve tried everything,” she said. “Acrylic paint, pastels, pencils. I really like sketching with graphite in the galleries.”

In fact, it was Yale’s strength in both arts and sciences that attracted Ma to the university.

“Yale has equally strong art and science programs. I like exploring fields I never had an opportunity to try before,” she said, noting that in her first year at Yale she focused on the humanities through the Directed Studies Program. “This year I’m getting back to the sciences,” she added.

In 2013, Ma received a Nancy Horten Bartels Scholar Internship, which funds an undergraduate student to participate in research at one of the Yale art museums for a full academic year.

“They were looking for someone who had a strong background in both science and arts,” said Ma.

At the art gallery, Ma works with David Odo, the Bradley Assistant Curator of Academic Affairs. Together, they began to think about ways to engage students in the STEM programs.

No stranger to interdisciplinary collaborations, Odo works with a range of schools and departments across the university, from the School of Art to languages to the history of science. In working with Ma, Odo said, they wanted to explore how art and science could be mutually useful to each other.

“We’re looking at what higher-level concepts science faculty are trying to teach and how art can aid in that process — for example, visualizing chemical processes at the microscopic level and what students need to be able to picture things they can’t physically see. Or, how can objects in our collections help students studying 3D modeling,” said Odo.

Last fall, Ma set up a brainstorming session with students to discuss ideas for weekly programs at the art gallery that would appeal to STEM students. They agreed that one suggestion, a tour for science majors, had great potential, but Ma soon grasped that they needed to fine-tune the idea.

“We realized that ‘The Sciences’ includes a very broad spectrum and the disciplines are so different,” she said. “For example, math majors may not be interested in the same topics as biology majors.” The art gallery is now planning a math-oriented tour for students this spring.    

Sketching scientists

Another idea that took hold is a series of hour-long sketching sessions in the gallery for STEM majors. Ma utilized social media and word-of-mouth to promote the event. She also asked professors to show her event posters in many of her introductory STEM courses, including organic chemistry, statistics, and biology.

“We invite students to come sketch with people who have similar interests,” she said. Ma works with the visiting students, giving them some basic lessons in drawing and taking them to a new part of the gallery each time.

According to Odo, one challenge to creating these kinds of programs is trying to be too big, too soon. By starting with smaller pilot programs, he and Ma can see what works, what is meaningful to STEM majors, and then scale the programs up to be useful to students and faculty.

“This is a very thoughtful process and we want to identify best practices. We want to explore the ideas that can bridge these two areas of study,” said Odo, adding that this is an important moment for art museums to be part of the conversation about scientific education in the United States.

“Museums can be an important partner in how we reframe the discussion about teaching young scientists,” he said, noting that museums are an unrecognized resource for combining interests in art and science.

“Museums provide a space that supports all different kinds of thinking,” he said. “Students don’t have to make an exclusive choice to follow one discipline or another. There is no reason for science majors to leave art behind,” he added.

Both Odo and Ma agree that time-challenged students can benefit from visiting the museums beyond purely intellectual pursuits.

“We want every student to feel welcome here,” said Odo. “This is a space for exploring, but it’s also a place for pleasure and relaxation.”

Odo will be leaving Yale this April to take up a new position as director of student programs and research curator of university collections initiatives at the newly renovated Harvard Art Museums. Ma will spend the summer as an Amgen Scholar for the 2014 Stanford Summer Research Program. She was one of 32 students selected from more than 1,000 applications for the prestigious science research fellowship, which is offered at the top research facilities across the United States and Europe.

“It is very possible I was selected due to my unique artistic and scientific background,” she said.

While Ma’s internship at the art gallery will conclude this spring, she plans to continue the STEM+Arts sketching sessions with fellow students when she returns to campus in the fall.

“We’ve already gathered a good group who come to each of our events and we hope to draw in even more people next year,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun. We talk about science and sketch!”

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