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How pairing an artist and a scientist helps creatively communicate bioscience research

Art and science are often viewed through an either-or lens. But not in the Phoenix Bioscience Core.

On the top floor of the newest building in the area of downtown Phoenix, a curious crowd listens and learns. It’s the first look at the Artist + Researcher Year 2 Exhibition: ten teams, each made up of one researcher and one artist. The scientific topics and artistic mediums vary, but the goal is the same: to creatively communicate the research.

Health-care headgear, but make it fashion

Chad Stecher is an assistant professor of behavioral health economics at Arizona State University. He studies mobile health designs, things like apps and wristbands.

“How do we design wearables, which provide a signal to individuals about their health and behavior in a way that motivates and helps them achieve their goals?” Stecher asked.

He imagines more people choosing devices to track their behavior and biology.

“If the future wearable is this crazy contraption on your head that’s monitoring everything going on in your body but also your brain, there might also be room for creativity, for someone to express themselves through the design of that device,” Stecher said.

Drawing on that vision, artist James Angel used augmented reality. Tap your phone, and images of people with different headpieces are superimposed on the real-life environment.

“As you go around, you can see other iterations, you know, to show the idea of these customizable whole health systems that will have already embraced this unlimited potential of human achievement," said Angel, who also created a painting of a future descendant.

From high tech to high touch

“My form of expression is textiles,” artist Ann Morton said.  

She handmade embroidery patches for a fictitious group called EC Corps.

“What we decided to do is create this resistance group because a lot of my work kind of deals with politics and activism,” she said. 

Morton used a hand press to make posters touting the group’s slogan: Stay awake, stay aware, stay contagious. 

The project encourages “contagionists” to spread what researcher Barret Michalec calls our superpower: EC, or emotional contagion, the catching of others’ emotional states.  

“So, you could be walking down the street and see someone who is clearly sad through their body language or facial expressions, and you’ll come to feel some level of that emotional state yourself,” he said.

Michalec leads the Center for Advancing Interprofessional Practice, Education and Research (CAIPER) at ASU, and is an associate professor in the Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation.

He wants to spread emotional contagion in the health-care field. Traditional thinking, Michalec said, is to minimize emotional connections because they can overwhelm health-care workers, but he says the evidence isn’t there.

“So, if we start teaching health-care practitioners and health profession students to lean in to that authentic innate ability to connect with patients and others emotionally, think of the data that provides to help patients out and engage in a more interprofessional practice,” Michalec said. 

A personal portrait — of organs

The research is happening around the Phoenix Bioscience campus, home to scientists from Arizona’s three public universities, biotech companies and the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), where Johanna DiStefano leads the Diabetes and Fibrotic Disease unit.

“I’m very interested in the intersection between environment and genetics,” she said.  

She collaborated with artist Monica Aissa Martinez, who initially found DiStefano’s research on non-alcoholic fatty liver disease intriguing but confusing. She wanted to see an actual liver but DiStefano’s lab doesn’t use organs. When Martinez tried another route, things got personal.

“I need a real person to tell a real story,” Martinez recalled telling DiStefano. ”Do you know anybody?”

“And I said I have non-alcoholic fatty liver disease,” DiStefano said. “And I think you were surprised."

“I was very surprised,” Martinez said.

“She said, You’re so healthy,'” DiStefano recalled.

With DiStefano’s permission, Martinez drew a full-scale portrait  of her face — and organs.

“Oh my gosh, I cried. It was very emotional,” DiStefano said.

“She saw herself just without skin,” Martinez said. “Just open, vulnerable to the world.”

Communicating Rett syndrome through dance

An open mind is what Vinodh Narayanan, medical director for TGen's Center for Rare Childhood Disorders, brought to the program.

“I was expecting a painter or a sculptor, and I did not anticipate being paired with a dancer,” he said. “But I had no preconceived notions.”

Through movement, Nicole L. Olson shares the story of Rett syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that affects a child’s ability to speak, walk and eat.

“I was nervous about it at first, of how do I talk about that through dance, and how do I make sure I am respectful of everyone’s journey?” she said. “I read the articles that were sent, I watched videos, I reached out when I needed to just to get different aspects of it.”

Her 8-minute film “The Mirror” portrays a woman who sees herself as she is inside, alongside her ever-changing reflection.

“I was nervous about it at first, of how do I talk about that through dance, and how do I make sure I am respectful of everyone’s journey? I read the articles that were sent, I watched videos, I reached out when I needed to just to get different aspects of it.” — Dancer Nicole L. Olson

“I’ve shown this video to a few of my parents with children, with girls with Rett syndrome, and inevitably they break down in tears,” Narayanan said. “I think people from different backgrounds when they see it, they will see the reflection of their own family struggles in that video, I think that’s really what’s great about it.”

From dance to glass globes and jewelry, the 10 teams will discuss and display their projects at a Sept. 14 event at University of Arizona's Health Sciences Education Building, located at 435 N. 5th Street in downtown Phoenix. Reservations can be made online.

Their art will remain on display for several months before moving to other locations to be determined.

The Artists + Researchers Exhibition is the largest initiative organized by Phoenix Bioscience Core’s arts committee.

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As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.