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Essay Contest

Second place: Tammy Tran

Science is everywhere: unexpected science encounters in the course of everyday life

Mock up of a potential advertisement at a bus stop. Image modified from www.lacma.org. Credit: Creative Commons.
There is an acclaimed art exhibit that announces “ART IS EVERYWHERE.” Inscribed in black block letters, this sentiment is a reminder that art can be found everywhere and art should be easily accessible. This push was a direct response to perception of art as exclusionary and elitist, terms similarly hurled at academics and scientific research. One provocative approach to counteract this problem was to display noteworthy art in public spaces at bus stops, billboards and movie trailers across all fifty states.1 For those interested, a free downloadable phone app and website immediately provided more information about the art pieces, historical background and related works.

Future approaches to make scientific research more accessible to the general public could begin
by disseminating current research findings in innovative ways in public spaces such as (1) billboards and bus stops, (2) murals, and (3) larger installations and exhibitions. These approaches infuse learning about new scientific findings into part of the daily commute and lifestyle, requiring scientists to distill their research into meaningful and stimulating snippets. A more detailed analysis of the scientific findings, related research, podcasts and blogs can be instantly accessed in the accompanying phone app and online.

Imagine encountering a subway advertisement of a human heart parallel to an artificial,
mechanical heart2,3,4 with the lines “BUILDING A BETTER HEART” (Figure 1). You could
point your phone at the QR code on the bottom of the ad to read a detailed description of the
artificial heart, watch a short video of the authors explaining their research, and scroll down for
the accompanying press release and research article. You could sign for updates about related
research, follow the scientist on Twitter, and find related content, on the website and app! This
ad can be quickly and easily swapped so new research findings can be regularly disseminated,
allowing for updates on current ongoing research. Furthermore, ads in public spaces such as bus
stops and subways stations are owned by the local government, substantially reducing the cost of
implementation.

Similarly, vibrant urban art murals can assist in communicating new scientific discoveries.
Paralleling current murals addressing social issues5, future potential murals could elaborate on
the current research conducted by local universities and hospitals. For example, a colorful
anatomical painting of a human body containing artificial organs could include information
about the current research and long-term feasibility of artificial organs. Using these pre-existing
programs, murals can communicate dry research findings into compelling images and critically
reach and interest underserved and underprivileged communities.

Temporary public art installations can also display scientific research in novel and innovative
forms. For example, in Chicago, there was a 7-foot-tall sculpture of feet that would relocate
throughout the city to bring attention to the Art Institute6. This exhibit was quite popular, a
hotspot for Instagram and Snapchat photos while dangling off the feet. A companion art
installation of Purkinje cells alongside these feet could draw attention to the role of the
cerebellum in motor control. This could be accompanied by a large screen with updates on
current cerebellar research and diseases, information also available through the application and
website. Utilizing open public spaces such as parks and airports could provide space for rotating
exhibits of current scientific research. Displays such as an interactive car running on algae as a
biofuel7 or mechanical bionic legs8 provide an opportunity to present stimulating new devices to
the general audience. Presently, airports across the nation already collaborate with local
museums and artists to display rotating art and sculptures9, allowing utilization of this existing
infrastructure to display new inventions would be a feasible proposal.

Engaging in scientific dissemination is critical to persuade the public that science matters.
Scientists are often encouraged to give public talks, tweet, create podcasts and blogs but these
methods both lack centralization and often attract followers who already support science. By
interspersing new scientific discoveries into public spaces, casual encounters with
groundbreaking research can occur while people perform their daily routine. Effortless scientific
engagement can occur while waiting for a flight or metro, walking through the park and en route
to work. Even casual absorption of this information would increase awareness of the current
research endeavors, but for the more interested individuals, there is a continuous source of
organized information made accessible on every person’s phone. Using the phone app and
website, additional information about new scientific findings and relevant podcasts, Twitters and
academic blogs would be available, providing an accessible centralized source of material for
continued learning and discourse. Critically, this proposal strives to communicate scientific
discoveries by reaching a larger non-scientific audience through unexpected encounters in the
course of everyday life.

1. Associated Press. (2014) Artwork chosen to be displayed across US. The Big Story, retrieved from http://bigstory.ap.org/
2. Torregrossa, G., Morshuis, M., Varghese, R., Hosseinian, L., Vida, V., Tarzia, V., ... & Kasirajan, V. (2014). Results with SynCardia total artificial heart beyond 1 year. ASAIO Journal, 60(6), 626-634.
3. O’Brien, A. (2015). Researcher’s Quest for an Artificial Heart. Discover Magazine, retrieved from http://discovermagazine.com/
4. Image modified from photograph from LACMA ©, www.lacma.org, used under the Creative Commons Attribution.
5. Lowe, S. S. (2000). Creating community art for community development. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 29(3), 357-386.
6. Manchir, M. (2014). Feet sculpture likely to move from beach. Chicago Tribune, retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/
7. Wijffels, R. H., & Barbosa, M. J. (2010). An outlook on microalgal biofuels. Science, 329(5993), 796-799.
8. Cott, E. (2015). Prosthetic limbs, controlled by thought. The New York Times, retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/
9. Spears, D. In a stressful setting, artistic treatment for the traveler. The New York Times, retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/

Read more 2017 winning essays