Scientists by Day, Artists by Night

Creativity is, “the process of generating new information”, states Dr. Tina Seelig, professor at Stanford University and author on innovation entrepreneurship and creativity [1].

She continues to explain that, “[creativity] at the core is the ability to look at problems from different angles, to connect and combine concepts, and the ability to challenge traditional assumptions. These are skills that require practice to master.” Historically oversimplified as a property of the brain’s right-side hemisphere, creativity is a neurologically complex process involving the flow of mental connections across multiple brain networks [2,3]. This makes it clear that creativity is much more than the ability to produce artwork, but rather is a paradigm through which one interacts with the world [4]. Here at Penn, there are many creative scientists at different stages of their graduate studies, who pursue hobbies across all types of creative media including music, visual arts, and dance [5].

Playing music has been shown to be beneficial for your brain, as it helps to maintain alertness, increase reaction time, and integrate multi-sensory input [6]. Improvising with fellow musicians, or jamming, can also sharpen ‘soft skills’ which are important to us both as individuals and scientists.

“Communication is a big part of it. Jamming is the ultimate dialogue-less, application-less conversation that is nothing but has everything”, says Hooman Hamedani, a bioengineering Ph.D. candidate who sings and plays the cross-harp harmonica and keyboard.

He has been a student-musician for the past two decades, and recognizes creativity in science and art as, “a balance between doing useful beautiful things and useless beautiful things.”

These benefits are not restricted to playing in a group, as there is much to be gained from playing music solo. Brian Keith, Ph.D., of the Wistar Institute has been playing classical guitar for years, and maintains it as an individual retreat.

“Playing music is a mental vacation, even if it’s just 15 minutes that I can sit down and play in the morning. It takes you away from all the day-to-day stuff.”

Practicing music helps his scientific process too, as, “doing something that takes me out of the problem always makes me think better”. Indeed, it has been shown that individuals are more successful at creatively solving problems that they have seen before when they take a break with an activity that requires less working memory and promotes mind-wandering [7,8].

Qu Deng Ph.D., is a post-doc who practices photography as her medium of choice, which allows her to get some fresh air.

“I like to be in nature, so it allows me to go outside and explore new places, since 90% of our time is in the lab.” In particular, this art form is a mode for her to explore alternative perspectives [9].

“Just as in science, in photography you need to discover some new aspect [of your subject]. Even if it’s the same landscape, you can always find different angles to take a picture.”

Creative arts as a hobby can also be a profound source of liberation from the rigidity and high stakes of science research.

“Science requires rationale, importance, and a translational impact on people. Art is different— the rationale is because it is beautiful,” says Shaun Egolf, a doctoral student in CAMB who sang with the Penn chorus last year. He appreciates the different paradigm that art exists in.

“[Creative] success isn’t so dependent on quantitative measures, like significance value. You simply entertain people and bring them joy.”

Sixth year Ph.D. candidate Arwa Abbas recognizes that her science skills can inform how she makes her illustrations.

“My science training in grad school has influenced my art because I’m more open to trying new things. In my art, I used to not go outside of the boundaries of what I was good at. Now, if there’s something that I don’t know how to do, I do the research and learn how to do it.”

Although many people are exposed to their artistic endeavors from a young age, it’s never too late to try something new. Kathy Huang, a GCB doctoral student, recently started taking introductory ballet classes for the first time, to break out of her comfort zone.

“It’s refreshing as a form of physical discipline after I spend most of my day practicing mental discipline [with science]”. The class setting provides an element of motivation too. “I paid for it, which keeps me on track, since I feel like I have to go, to make every penny worth it.”

While it certainly looks different for all of us, Qu stresses, “it’s important to find something that you’re really passionate about outside of the lab.” The way in which we integrate artistic creation into our lives is also a personal choice.

Hooman enjoys it leisurely by, “not taking it too seriously.” That’s not to say though, that you’re stuck at amateur status.

Kathy reminds us that, “you don’t have to be singular with what you’re good at. You don’t need to put all of your time towards your art, but don’t think of it as just a distraction, since you really can get better.”

Arwa emphasizes how appropriate critique is vital in both disciplines. “Don’t compare yourself to other people. The only thing you should compare to is what you were doing a year ago. You’re the only person that is doing your thing, and as long as it makes you happy to do it, that’s all that matters.” Creative hobbies come in all shapes and sizes, across various mediums that satisfy diverse goals and spans interests. We can all benefit from bringing a little creativity into our lives, however we see fit.










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