When Art and Science Meet Halfway


by Rob Mitchum

Too often, art and science are treated as intellectual adversaries. Educational systems typically route students toward one pole or the other, with the artistic and scientific spheres rarely intersecting by the time one reaches the undergraduate and graduate levels. But for the last two years, the University of Chicago has paved a path between these two fields with the Arts|Science Initiative, which offers grants to collaborations that reach across the traditional boundary lines.

This year’s presentation, which took place in the “performance penthouse” of the brand-new Logan Center for the Arts on the south end of campus, featured six such partnerships formed between scientists and doctors-in-training on one side and artists, sculptors, and filmmakers on the other. The projects covered a wide span of ideas and technologies, from 3-D sculptures based on math theorems to hacked Wii controllers that allow dancers to make music as they move. In each case, the participants raved about how the collaboration allowed them to flex a different part of their mind, approaching familiar topics with a fresh set of eyes and think about new, creative ways to merge the artistic and the scientific.

Trauma Under the Microscope: Collected Perspectives on PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder has frequently been in the headlines lately, as tragedies such as the killing of 17 Afghan civilians by a US soldier draws attention to the high incidence of the condition in veterans of war. But the definitions of “trauma” and “PTSD” vary widely from person to person, clouding the issue of what causes the disorder and how it is diagnosed and treated. Many journalists and laypeople misuse the term, or fail to understand that PTSD is caused by a constellation of factors, not a single incident of trauma, said Nicole Baltrushes, a Pritzker School of Medicine student.

So Baltrushes collaborated with Sravana Reddy of the Computer Science program and Carmen Merport of the English Department to create an interactive website on PTSD. Starting with a print flyer, the team asked friends, family, faculty members from several disciplines and health professionals to annotate the flyer based on their understanding of the disorder and its terminology. They then took those notes, plus various multimedia links to poetry, videos, pictures, Facebook posts and other sources, and built an interactive webpage that can be added to and customized by users.

“The hope is that as more people visit the site, and as more people hear about the site, that there can be a web-based conversation that we start about what is trauma and PTSD, to broaden our understanding,” Baltrushes said. “Because as of yet, we have not the greatest understanding of what these things are, or how to even approach healing of these things on any level.”


As laboratory imaging technologies improve, science becomes more and more of a visual discipline. In the film “Opening,” Jared Clemens of the Committee on Neurobiology and Marco G. Ferrari of the Department of Visual Art make the connection between scientific videos and the world of film explicit through innovative use of split screens, montage, and audio editing. While original footage featuring neuron-esque trees on the University of Chicago campus runs in the middle of the screen, laboratory videos of actual neurons run on the left side while scenes captured from films such as Elephant Man, The Shining, and Rear Window play on the right. Meanwhile, the audio track alternates between scientific descriptions of the structure and function of the brain and movie dialogue that touches on the nature of the mind.

“This piece originated in a personal interest in the disconnect that exists between much of the public and the sciences,” Clemens said. “I wanted to explore this in a non-traditional way…the structure of the piece is an abstraction of the chaos and dynamics that exist in neural circuits, as well as the chaos that exists between the public and the sciences.”

To bring the work to the public, Clemens and Ferrari will project the eight-minute film starting at sunset on May 11th onto a very appropriate canvas: the Surgery Brain Research Institute entrance on the east side of the University of Chicago hospital complex.

El Shaddai

For the Fall 2009 issue of Medicine on the Midway, Pritzker medical student Philippe Tapon told the story of Manoj Rana, a 26-year-old man who suffered burns over 95 percent of his body in a house fire. Since then, Tapon has continued to expand Rana’s story into a book-length work, entwining his story with the experiences of a woman who experienced a different sort of trauma through years of sexual abuse. To add a visual element to the story, Tapon collaborated with Stacee Kalmanovsky and Clare Rosean of the Department of Visual Arts, who provided original art and photo collages.

As a demonstration of this multi-media approach, Tapon read an excerpt from his book alongside a slideshow including photographs of Rana’s injuries, Kalmanovsky and Rosean’s art, and medical illustrations. Before the reading, Tapon explained how writing about these cases and collaborating with people outside of the medical field helped him to reconcile his clinical perspective as a doctor-in-training with a more emotional view of a patient’s recovery from trauma.

“I was interested to explore what the medical gaze meant; that effort to come up with an objective, scientific, rational description of an event, and yet somehow be unmoved and not bring my own personal bias into this,” Tapon said. “[My advisor] Dan Brauner helped me to understand that this was in some sense a fiction created by doctors to help them with their work. Bringing in Stacee and Clare, who did not subscribe to this belief into the work, helped me a great deal.”

About Rob Mitchum (525 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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