Exploring interfaces between science, humanities

Feb. 23, 2012

by Chris Barncard

Carrie Roy tells stories, but not like you’re used to hearing them.

In her hands, the “Three Little Pigs” looks like a subway map. Her characters are multi-colored bars in a timeline, converging, separating and — poor, poor piggies — coming to an abrupt end.

“It’s relatively new in the humanities to look at your research subject as a data set, and to take that data and re-present it in a way that may show you new connections,” said Roy, the post-doc coordinator of Humanities Research Bridge and one of a dozen winners of Emerging Interface Awards from the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery.

Roy will describe her work on visual representation of charater interactions at 10 a.m. Friday, Feb. 24 in the third-floor teaching lab at WID, the first of the Emerging Interface winners to hold the public presentation expected of each of the program’s participants.

The semester-long, $2,500 Emerging Interfaces Awards were created as a way to explore the different ways thinkers in the humanities and sciences approach discovery.

John Yin, leader of the institute’s Systems Biology research theme, said presentations by the rest of the award winners will stretch out across the spring semester, as the group of grad students representing humanities disciplines from around campus work through a residency alongside WID’s scientists and engineers.

“They’ve already begun meeting as a group and building ties to the scientists in the research groups in our building,” Yin said. “It’s a wide range of interests and skills they bring with them. When we get together we have interesting discussions, and we all learn from those interactions.”

For her presentation, Roy has dipped into virus-cell interaction visualizations made by Yin’s team.

“The way she shows the interactions between characters in a story could just as easily be applied to molecules interacting in your body,” Yin said.

Yin expects the scientists at WID to benefit from the humanist perspective. That’s the appeal for Emerging Interfaces participant Kaitlin Rienzo-Stack, an entomology grad student who earned a grant with a project aimed at bringing opposing sides of a clean water debate together through square dancing.

“I’ve had such an interdisciplinary background, and I’m not just sitting in Russell Labs,” she said. “That’s really helpful. When you discuss your work with people outside your field, they ask questions that wouldn’t naturally occur to you.”

Amanda Horn, a Ph.D. candidate in piano performance and pedagogy who hopes to make progress in developing practice techniques tailored for pianists with small hands, said the time spent picking scientists’ brains should be a boon to her own work.

“It’s refreshing to see their focus on answering key questions,” Horn said. “Art can be so subjective that we probably overlook the objective approach. We make a sound on the piano and we say, ‘I liked that!’ But not so much, ‘How did I make that happen?’”

To Yin — who is also a cellist — science is an endeavor not unlike Horn sitting down at a piano.

“The more we come to understand each other’s approach to creativity, the better equipped will be in our own work,” he said.

The rest of the Emerging Interfaces graduate students are:

• Chris Bocast, who studies acoustic ecology in the Nelson Institute, who would like to produce podcasts about WID research;

• Emily Eggleston, doing work toward a masters degree in journalism, will apply her science writing focus to creating a flow-chart-style entry point to help people find scientific disciplines or even individual UW–Madison labs that match their interests;

• Shawn Everette, an MFA candidate and glass artist, would like to added more dazzling effects to his neon-filled, science-fiction influenced artwork;

• Alexander Hanna, working on a PhD in sociology, is harvesting Twitter posts by key political figures and their followers to use the 2012 elections to help understand the dissemination of political ideas through social networks;

• Matthew Hora, a researcher in the Wisconsin Center for Educaiton Research and educational psychology student, who hopes to use science visualization techniques to help college faculty examine their own teaching methods;

• Ryan Lawless, an MFA student, wants to apply digital and 3D printing techniques to replicate the process of hand-making pottery;

• Elisabeth Miller, an English grad student, is using multi-media story telling to help aphasia sufferers — who have trouble speaking — communicate life stories;

• Jamon VanDenHoek, a geographic information science student planning to use satellite imagery and aerial photography to make preliminary maps of the unexcavated lower city of Troy, and

• Koala Choi-Fung Yip, a dancer, intends to incorporate biological, artistic and technological study of the human form into a new genre of art, “performative installation.”