Sunday, April 29, 2012

Something out of Nothing or Nothing out of Something?

Where are our brains going when we process visual images and turn them into information? What is the process of "taking apart" an image and how is it related to "building" a concept based on images we see?

The Pots

The world is such a busy place and visually, we are bombarded by a million impressions every day. What is the role of the artist? Is it to "harness" vision? To "enhance" the quotidian stream?

Two Worlds

And as I scientist I wonder, how much is "hidden" in the image stream? How much of it do we intercept? How much goes past us unbidden and unperceived? Just as an artist "paints a picture," doesn't a scientist create a model that challenges, sharpens, and specifies our understanding?

The Strand

As I move through this period of comparing, melding, and practicing science and art as "one," these questions seem very much worth pondering and pursuing.

The Expulsion

Does it all add up to something out of nothing or nothing out of something?


Thursday, April 26, 2012

Mundane Objects Great Images

A few months ago we saw some amazing sculptures of Cy Twombly at MOMA. They were done in the '50s, mostly made from mundane materials like old tools, distressed wood, etc., and all of them were painted white. Here's an example.

Twombly Sculpture

Twombly was able to take mundane articles, random pieces of wood, and doodle-like lines, elevating them to high art. I took this picture of salt stains on a car and dedicated it to his work.

Salting our way to Hell (after Cy Twombly)

Maybe it's when I grew up, maybe it's my years of being exposed to Abstract Expressionism, maybe it's just me. But I am super attracted to random shapes, lines, and textures. When these are the result of natural processes on man-made objects, all the better.


So it's no surprise I went through a time when I was assembling mundane objects to build into something that I would call art. Old biology transparencies, ignored slides, crumbling textbooks in the basement. All of these seemed to call out to be made into something more.

My Harvard Students at Myles Standish State Forest

It's different from "re-using and recycling." Repurposing these unpresupposing materials is, I think, a thing of beauty and inspiration.


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Changing Course Midstream

Sometimes you set your goals, either consciously or unconsciously and it doesn't seem like there will be any way to meet them. Then one day you wake up, do a little bit of reflection, and realize that you've come a long way toward your goal and maybe even surpassed it.


A few years ago when I started doing these collage pieces it was out of a deep feeling of frustration. The frustration was something I could barely articulate verbally without feeling like a kvetch. Life was good. Job, great family, ample comfort. What more could I want?


But I did feel like I wanted more. Maybe more of a chance to create. Maybe some kind of subtle or not-so-subtle change. Without being able to articulate my feelings, even to myself at some level, what could I do?


Looking back it seems that I laid down my feelings well and good in these collage pieces. But I did more than just get my frustrations out, I set myself in a new direction, a new way of articulating, and a new way of creating.


By making the statement that I wanted to do creative work, and by doing that work, I was on the way to changing course. Going with that flow I woke up one day and found that the markers along the river had changed, that I was in a completely new space.


Sunday, April 22, 2012

Peeling Away and Redefining

A couple of years ago I realized I had to redefine my relationship with work and my professional life as a biologist. Things were not going the way they were supposed to. Disappointments were too deep, the fun seemed to have gone out of teaching, I wasn't happy with the way the future looked. There were real professional reasons for this, not just "midlife crisis." One morning I woke up and thought, "Aha! I can do something with those biology transparencies I don't use anymore!" The collage project was born.

Bivalve with Mountains

I had lots of fun mounting things on plexiglas (I had experimented with it earlier as a surface for painting...some good results and some "meh"). And I got to exercise my intuition for composition, juxtaposition, line, and texture. The challenge was to make visuals that were full of "nothing" out of materials that were full of message.


Playing with all kinds of materials I was able to create what I think was a dreamlike state out of printed materials whose original intent was to communicate reality, not a fuzzy subconscious state of mind.

Bennington Caustic

I liked the results a lot. Even sold a few pieces. But because these were not "art" I hid them around the house in places they wouldn't be seen so readily. Taking a second look at them I've decided they were quite good and worth putting into some kind of portfolio.


Friday, April 20, 2012

Adjusting and Evolving in the Brave New World

So we are busy interviewing candidates to take my job while I'm away on sabbatical. It's been a revealing process. As we discuss our program with candidates it comes clear how unique we are, how centered we are on the process of teaching and learning, and how we (and I) have evolved over the years since I came to the job.


When I started 18 years ago our science curriculum was set in stone, a lockstep progression through two semesters of "physical science" and two semesters of "biological science." I came to learn early on that our students, all non-science majors, were fairly immune to content. Or maybe it's that I soon understood the weakness of strict content vs. process and philosophy of science. A core curriculum, as strictly as we adhered to customs of the group there was allowance for some inventiveness when it came to how to teach. One of my "innovations" was to take groups of students (sometimes as large as 45 students...we were teaching classes of up to 140 some years) to Hall's Pond, a nearby nature preserve. Dismissed then as "froo-froo," we spend a whole semester now on outside lab activities.

Late Fall on Hall's Pond

We began to change our group's focus somewhat when a new chair came on. Instead of adhering strictly to physical vs. biological sciences we borrowed from one anothers' curricula to approach science more conceptually, as a set of ways to think about nature rather than a set of "facts" about nature. Our group spent many hours in deep discussion about pedagogy and plot, trying to figure out how we could put together a coherent "story" about science that engaged our non-major students. About this time I was innovating learning modalities in which students were encouraged to "visualize" science, much the way scientists do, and to build models, which is exactly how scientists communicate about their findings. Instead of lab reports I asked students to model ideas through videos, which they posted on Youtube. I set an example by making my own science animations, which have by now received almost a million hits. Most of the student videos were high schoolish, I have to admit, but a few of them were, and are, brilliant. It seemed to make a lot of sense that our students, many of whom were Communications majors, would benefit on many levels from the video-as-scientific-model exercise.

Initially criticized or at best ignored, my approach was eventually taken up by several science professors as we continued to stress visual learning as a strategy for improved learning outcomes. I pitched the ideas I was developing to our new Dean, who didn't seem to be interested. Or maybe she didn't understand. The twin sugarplums of fundraising and redecorating our '70s purpose-built brutalist building were starting to dance before her eyes. Then a few years later the directive came from on high to adopt "e-portfolios," a product the University had bought into. She jumped on the bandwagon of this counter-intuitive, clumsy, and plagiarism-prone tool and foisted it on us. By then I had graduated to flickr, which allowed me much greater flexibility, immediacy, and grading utility than the e-portfolio.

Viburnum bud explosion

I was caught unawares when the focus of our students shifted from COM, the School of Communications to SMG, the School of Management. COM was always a safe choice for our students because of no language or math requirement, along with some liberal arts components. SMG came to appeal because many of our students think they will go into "finance" as a "profession." Along with this shifting stress came an ever lower level of intellectual curiosity among our students.

Agapanthus, Chapultapec Park

Realizing the importance of maintaining an interdisciplinary approach, I started focusing on how to bring aspects of our program's non-science courses into a scientific perspective. In addition, taking a systems approach to cell organization, metabolic processes, and biochemical relationships I encouraged my students to think about how what they were learning in science might translate into their thoughts about management. I learned soon enough that in their 6-credit management course they were focusing on advanced ideas like how to put a bullet presentation together in PowerPoint. Or how to respond to a midnight assignment. Might I have misinterpreted my audience?

Wonderous Magnolia

Interesting that early on I pitched interdisciplinarity to our dean over lunch with the then-director of the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence. I even proposed the name "Center for Interdisciplinary Studies." Meanwhile our science faculty focused on making our courses interdisciplinary, meaningful, even "relevant" to our students. Then about three years ago the dean decided that students needed more latitude in choosing elective courses and cut the freshman part of our science curriculum. This entailed a painful halving of our staff. Goodbye colleagues, even your "warts" look better now that we are bereft of you! When I asked our University President at a town meeting whether he knew our College FTEs were being cut by 10% he huffed and said it "couldn't be." This is the same year I was denied sabbatical, the year I held a Fulbright invitation to teach in Thailand in my hand.

Lilac Bouquet

The Science Division retrenched and worked anew at making our courses sleek, useful, and intellectually stimulating to our students. Fully immersed in the interdisciplinary ideal, we were surprised when the Dean decided to open a new "Center for Interdisciplinary Studies" at our College. More than just a name, the new "Center" will entail more architectural remodeling both of the building and curriculum. At a recent faculty meeting we were regaled with the new theme of professional baseball as a focus for the intellectual pursuit of "interdisciplinarity."

Lilac Closeup

I used the word "evolving" in the title of this post. And in a Darwinian sense it's useful to mention that one's professional survival in our school is strongly determined by student evaluations. The reports of 20-year-olds are the major selective pressure where I work. Maybe this extends to the survival of the program. Rather than waste our breath on the foundations of a liberal education why not keep that wide screen TV going in the lobby and sell parents and their kids on our fun focus on sports? Go Sox!

Magnolia Closeup

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Tipping the Bin and Getting Results

Sometimes you need to tip the bin to get results. It seems a bit perilous, there's the risk of collapse, but it's biology so it's gotta be real. That's what happened in our worm composting operation in the basement. We don't grow the worms for the garden, though we do put them in the soil sometimes. We just grow them for fun, to get rid of our scraps, and to get some of that wonderful compost tea out of the operation.

I've posted before about that wonderful compost tea. It's ugly brown. It smells. It's strong. But dilute it way down (a couple of tablespoons to a gallon of water) and it's the best fertilizer you can imagine. And instead of changing the soil chemistry of your garden or potted plants like commercial fertilizers, this stuff actually improves the soil by adding nutrients and beneficial bacteria.

Worm composting in the Basement

Anyway, how to get it out of the bins? As you can see our operation is super simple. Instead of using fancy collection bins we just use old recycle bins from the city. They have some breathing holes in the bottom so I found out that by putting the bin on a little bit of an angle water would naturally run to the lowest point.

I put a wide bin on the floor underneath and as the compost tea slowly makes its way through the muck it drips bit by bit into the waiting container below.

Tipping the Bin

I learned something else this way. SInce I don't want the worm bin to fall on the floor I have to counter the weight by piling the soil up on one side. Doing this gives me the chance to aerate the worms' environment, mix up the medium, and provide more surface area for oxygenation. We have three bins so I do this every 3 days or so, and between the worms and their gut bacteria all of our compostables are taken care of AND we have that wonderful elixir, the compost tea.

Composting Worm Habitat

With the official start of my sabbatical a few days away this is a great time to think about tipping the bin a little bit and extracting some good stuff from this experience!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Is There A Creativity DNA?

I wonder where creativity comes from. Is it built into the brain? Do we struggle to find it? What nurtures it? I wonder if we can look at these questions from a biological perspective?

Apothecium Emerging

My formal scientific research focuses on the lichen family Cladoniaceae, a group with about 600 species distributed geographically all around the world. I became interested in these lichens because so many previous workers had struggled with their morphology. In addition to my taxonomic work with the Cladoniaceae I became enchanted with their developmental morphology--how each lichen attained its adult shape.

Over several years I took a whole series of scanning electron micrographs (SEM) that looked at the surface morphology of lichens and traced the changes in a given species. I ended up focusing on structures about 100 microns (1/10 millimeter), about the smallest size visible to the unaided human eye. The structures I studied were exclusively fungal. And these SEM photos show only fungal structures. There are no algae in these pictures.

Juvenile Thysanothecium

Why do I mention this? Because lichens are a combination of fungal and photosynthetic (either algae or cyanobacteria) partners. The photosynthetic partner produces sugars through photosynthesis and the fungus absorbs those sugars. The fungus provides a structure in which the photobionts can live. But it's the fungus, not the photosynthetic partners, that reproduces sexually. And, as I found out, it's the fungus (with influence from the photobiont) that determines the shape of the lichen.

The lichens I study are incredibly creative about their forms. They are branched, graceful, sculptural. And in spite of the photobiont's influence, the fact that the fungus leads growth would suggest that the DNA for this creative morphogenesis is in the fungus.

Maturing Thysanothecium

So, is there a creativity DNA? Roughly speaking, I think we see one in lichens, and certainly in other living forms. What about humans?

In my own experience it seems like there is some drive, at least in many humans, to create. Whether it's art or ideas or music or literature or gardens or recipes, humans are programmed at some level to create. Some of us are more "driven" about it and some of us keep it more under control. But if you ask me today I will vote for yes, there is a creativity DNA.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Innovation isn't easy

I read a cool piece in the New York Times this morning, "Innovation Isn't Easy."

The article addressed the problems of changing direction midstream, especially for industry giants. The kicker was, "why couldn't Kodak (or Nikon or Canon for that matter) develop Instagram?"

The bottom line is that enterprises that are profitable find it difficult or impossible to develop new products outside of their profit (read, "comfort") zone. It's an old story. Old technologies replaced by new, old enterprises put out of business as newer ones emerge.

It got me to thinking about why we need breaks. Real breaks, for recalibrating our brains. In my case, why I need a sabbatical. I don't know about other academics, (actually I do) but I rake in an enormous profit for my "non-profit" university. With about 100 students in my required class, no teaching assistants, graders, or lab assistants, I pull in a very modest salary while hosting a very large group of students whose parents are paying retail in a program that provides few, and small, scholarships.

I'm not complaining. It's all good, I took the job voluntarily 18 years ago and overall I like it. But a few years ago when I was denied sabbatical at the rather destructive whim of my dean, some of the shine went off the apple. Teaching non-major undergraduates in a required science course for almost two decades, teaching innovations and all, does get tired.

It's never too late to change. But even a professor's job, physically undemanding, requires engagement with each new group of students. You can't go through the motions. At least I haven't. At the same time, thinking and acting creatively on one's own behalf seems to get harder to do, especially where there's little room for advancement once you've achieved tenure.

So, happily, I'm embarking on a year-long sabbatical in a few weeks. A release less for me than for my brain. A chance to experiment, play, and grow outside of the normal bounds of work. Ever since I got the letter approving this sabbatical, now three years overdue, I've started the mental unwinding process toward a year off, applying to residencies and fellowships (and getting some!), spending more time writing and doing art, and letting myself consider new directions.

How would I like to manage a change, even ever so slight, in my career direction?

It seems like break is a great time to consider this, and it points to a convincing argument of why we need sabbaticals.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Getting Some Oxygen

A wonderful day today in Cambridge, warm, sunny, full of blossoms, birds, and young leaves. I had the opportunity to take my BAC (Boston Architecture College) students on a field trip to Mt. Auburn Cemetery, the first landscaped cemetery in the United States and a relic of 19th-century monument to nature.

Green roof

My students are a wonderful group, mostly architects, a few landscape architects and some other design people. The course (Botany for Designers) is required for landscape architects and a science elective for everybody else. The BAC requires students to work during the day so let me tell you, when my students bring themselves to class at 5PM every Tuesday they are tired. Way too tired to "enjoy" a lecture on angiosperm reproduction, plant anatomy, or the structure and functions of water.

Mt. Auburn Cemetery in the Fall

Today was a different story. The sheer natural beauty all around us, the fluid air, the ability to walk and talk unfettered, to handle, smell, and observe nature from every angle made an enormous difference. We had a super field trip, full of animated discussion, lots of laughs, and a few surprises.

Garden folly

Getting these awesome people out into nature brought out the best in all of us.

Boston panorama

Friday, April 13, 2012

Spring Fever, Group Projects, and Brain Squeeze

So many things add to the "fever," light, temperature, time of year...I've been away from the clay lab for several days, like spring fever, also a combination of factors. This time of year my schedule changes radically. Lectures and labs are over and our students are working on Capstone group projects. We meet lockstep with groups of students who are doing their best to get their heads around a byzantine syllabus that's so complicated I can barely read it. Professors tend to write the questions for the capstone to show off their virtuosity. But there's a huge disconnect. When we meet with the groups their outlines are usually poorly organized and their sources are very weak. How many times have I had to say to these sophomores, "Television programs are not an acceptable source for a university-level research paper." Arghh! After meeting with eight groups of students all morning two days in a row there's precious little left of the creative side of my brain, so, better to take a break from clay. The Capstone is my least favorite part of the year, not least because it has nothing whatsoever to do with science, even though our program is supposed to be "interdisciplinary."

Mayapan Mask

But on the interdisciplinary front, lots of exciting stuff! I wrote last week that I was accepted to a summer institute with the National Endowment for the Humanities. Two weeks in Mexico City, one of my favorite places, and three weeks centered around the Four Corners region, exploring some famous and some pretty remote sites, including living pueblos that are way off the beaten track and not particularly welcoming if you just trip on in. There will be 24 scholars on board so I am looking forward to meeting up with some new colleagues and sharing a lot of enthusiasm.

Pathways through Mayapan

So the Mesoamerica trip has got me totally excited.

At the Acropolis

Then I found out I was accepted to the Andes Sprouts Society residence, which is an intersection of art, science, and sustainable agriculture. It encourages people to do work in "new media" and I have a couple of ideas. I'll focus my work on composting worms and I'm hoping for some exciting outcomes, will keep you posted! I'll be staying in an off-the-grid, solar powered remote cabin near a working farm and nature preserve. It's in the Catskills a bit west of Albany, New York, and I'll get to be there for three weeks.

Chamula Maize

So all this is an exciting and transformative time, one that I've been focusing on in depth, partly to offset the brain squeeze that the capstone imposes. It's interesting to think about the juxtaposition of group projects (like the Mesoamerica trip) vs. individual projects, like the Andes Sprouts Society Residency. I think in both cases I'll be collaborating and learning a lot, a wonderful way to start a sabbatical dedicated to bridging the gap between science and the humanities.

A Formal Planting

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Science Unites

There's been a lot in the news lately about Republicans not "liking" science. They're not alone. Science threatens people for a number of reasons. First, science is the premier methodology for understanding the natural world. Second, science places great responsibility on us. Because once we are provided with an understanding of how nature works we are obligated to act accordingly. Perhaps most important, and what I'm sure really scares Republicans, science unites. The physical reality of nature is the basis of science, something that we all share. The human eye, the human intellect, and all of the human senses are part of scientific reality. We all share it.

Spring trees

Last week Janet's grandmother died at the advanced age of 105. She was a grandmother of four and great-grandmother of nine. Janet made these traditional sephardic foods in her honor and brought them to the shiva at her mother's house in New York.



What does all this have to do with "Science Unites?" For one thing, when we eat together we are united. When we delve into traditional cuisine it unites us with our ancestors. And at the "scientific" level, humans, as heterotrophs, are part of a great family of life that includes all the animals as well as "stranger" organisms like fungi.

Parasitic plant

Pink Oyster Mushrooms

But the food is an aside. As we drove to grandma's graveside service in New Jersey we were treated to one of the most wonderful sights of the year, the springtime trees widened with blooms, their limbs filled and thickened with color, every twig still visible before the leaves of summer. Truly this is one of the temperate zone's great shows, equal or better in my opinion, to the leaves of fall.

The human eye rests on the beauty of nature in rebirth just like the human imagination wonders about the soul, its relationship to the body, and the meaning of life. Some of these questions can be answered by science and some can't. Every culture has its own interpretation, and the fact that we all share a human culture, however distinct each culture is, is a fact of science.

Magnolia Closeup

The beauty of nature, its grounding in the facts of existence, and the realities that it reflects are part of, yet transcend human patrimony. "Not liking" science is like "not liking" eating and drinking. Like it or not, it's reality.

Wonderous Magnolia

Monday, April 2, 2012


So I got accepted to a cool summer institute sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. We will travel to Mexico CIty for two weeks and then to the desert southwest of the United States to study a variety of things; iconography, settlement patterns, and cultural/religious roots of late classical Mexican culture, and then, making cultural connections between pre-columbian people of the desert southwest and their neighbors south of the "border" in Mexico.

Chinampas model

Mexico City subway

Tunnel of Science

It's super exciting. I can't tell what interests me more, the iconography or the settlement patterns. As a botanist, a trained anthropologist, and frequent traveler to Mexico I can't imagine a better way to bridge the gap between science and the humanities, the stated goal of this year's sabbatical.

Mayan corn depiction