Bridging science and the fine arts: The Convergence Initiative conveys a passion for neuroscience

It happens to all of us. We go to an art museum with an open mind and the will to learn something new, but we get lost in translation in front of a piece of art, spending time with it, taking a few steps back to see it from different angles…. Sometimes even the explanations on the labels don’t help. The confusion may come from our lack of knowledge about the artistic approach taken and methods used to achieve the art form, which can be challenging for artists to deliver.

Oddly, trainees in neuroscience face much the same challenge when it comes to explaining their research projects to non-scientists.

“It is always a little frustrating for me to hear this: ‘Why in the world are you studying flies?’ ‘What is that for?’” says Hunter Shaw, a doctoral student in Dr. Yong Rao’s laboratory at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC). “Although you know that your research project is meaningful, you don’t get that across when you’re trying to explain it to your friends and relatives.” 

Could the solution, at least in part, come from the fine arts? Certainly, the fine arts have the potential to channel complex mechanisms into a simple message. To create that message, however, we need to build certain bridges.

Building bridges is the goal of the project Convergence: Perceptions of Neuroscience. The initiative started last summer, led by Dr. Cristian Zaelzer, a research associate at the RI-MUHC in Dr. Charles Bourque’s laboratory, in collaboration with Dr. Andrée Lessard, manager of the Brain Repair and Integrative Neuroscience (BRaIN) Program at the RI-MUHC and The Neuro. “We were able to involve 16 trainees from 12 different laboratories in the BRaIN Program, as well as 28 Concordia University students practicing over 10 different art disciplines, to create pieces of art inspired by neuroscience projects,” says Dr. Zaelzer. In January, Concordia University launched a course for the fine arts students participating in Convergence.

While students and trainees on both sides share such features as rigour in their work, creativity and perseverance, a number of the RI-MUHC research trainees signed up to improve their communication skills. “We hope to open a dialogue between science and arts, to learn from each other, and to inspire our audience by increasing our communication skills,” summarizes Andrew Kaplan, a doctoral student from Dr. Alyson Fournier’s laboratory at The Neuro. The young neuroscientists in this project share a sense of responsibility to reach out to taxpayers and show them why basic research is important for society.

Artists, they also believe, may help scientists to express their passion. Since science has a technical and rational literature, it is often tempting to expose it as such in all communication. Sadly, scientists are often perceived as non-emotional, plain boring people. 

“When I was a trainee, one high school kid who came to our lab revealed to me and my colleagues that to her surprise, we all seemed ‘almost’ normal,” says Dr. Lessard. “The Convergence project aims to bring our passion for science up front and show the population not only that science is accessible, but that it can be exciting too.”

On the other side, the Convergence artists benefit from a new source of inspiration for their work, absorbing scientific culture directly from research trainees. From November through February they were introduced to basic neuroscience approaches through public lectures and privileged lab visits at the Montreal General Hospital. It has been a unique opportunity for them to learn about scientific methods and further develop their critical thinking.

The collaboration opens a rather interesting dialogue.  

Kim Glassman (art history student): Do you find contemporary art intimidating?
Ian Beamish (neuroscience student from Dr. Timothy Kennedy’s lab at The Neuro): Oh yes, I would say so.
KG: Well, we also find your specialized language quite intimidating!
IB: Then, can we just stop fearing each other!

At upcoming events, the public is invited to join Convergence participants in breaking this fear of unfamiliar ground.

  • Convergence art exhibition at the Visual Voice Galerie at the Belgo Builging, 372 Saint Catherine W., space 421: April 22 to May 20, 2017
    Vernissage (Convergence Materials): April 22, 3-5 p.m. 
    Finissage (Convergence Dynamics): May 20, 3-5 p.m.
     
  • Canadian Association for Neuroscience (CAN) public event at the Grande Bibliothèque (BAnQ), May 27, 3-4:30 p.m.

To learn more about Convergence and these upcoming events, please visit http://www.convergenceinitiative.org/ or email: info@convergenceinitiative.org