On Science and Art

Ann Woodworth

People have long debated the relationship between science and art. Some believe the two subjects go hand in hand. Others see them as two very different fields of thought and practice – the former being analytical, precise and measurable, and the latter being interpretive, emotional and subjective.

As a trained actor, singer and writer, art has always been an integral part of my life. And when I decided to pursue my Masters degree at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, I knew that my artistic nature would serve me well.

But, I have also always been fascinated by science. One of my favorite undergraduate courses was Introduction to Psychology. We learned about Clive Wearing, and I became slightly obsessed with the mind and memory. And I come from a family of scientists. My father is an environmental scientist, my older sister a zoologist and physiologist, and my little sister an audiologist.

So, when I found myself gravitating toward health and science reporting, I was not surprised. But, I never once saw my background in the art world as anything but beneficial to my understanding of the scientific world. If anything, studying art has made me more curious, adventurous and determined.

While putting together our 2012 Scientific Images Contest, I began to think even more about how these two worlds come together. The research images submitted were surreal, abstract, modern and colorful – all adjectives you might use to describe a painting hanging in the Art Institute.

At the gallery opening I heard attendees compare one to a Dalí and another to 1970s wallpaper. More than nanotubes under a microscope, or cells on a petri dish, these images evoked emotion, both positive and negative. People discussed the research, but also contemplated whether or not they wanted to hang the images on their walls.

I recently watched a TEDx talk my undergraduate acting teacher Ann Woodworth gave at the Northwestern campus in Qatar. In the talk, called “Acting for Your Life,” Ann speaks about the way in which acting teaches us how to live. How it teaches us to observe human behavior, like psychologists and sociologists, and how it allows us to walk in the shoes of others, if only for a moment.

“I had this major realization that my father, a doctor, was capable of saving somebody’s life,” she says. “So when I shared this new awakening with him, he said, ‘Yes, that’s true. In the right circumstance I can save somebody’s life. But you – what you do – you make that life worth living.’”

Listening to Ann reminded me how the worlds of science and art are not exclusive, but rather dependent upon one another.

On stage, as in science, as in life, we are constantly asking questions and seeking answers. “Who am I? What do I want? And what can I do to get what I want?” Ann says. Individually these may seem like daunting questions to tackle. And the answers may change with time and circumstance. But, as a whole, as a global community of scientists and artists, we are all “acting for our lives.”

“We are scientists who discover new ways to advance life,” Ann says. “We are artists who make that life worth living. And we are young entrepreneurs who share ideas worth spreading.”

Thank you, Ann, for teaching me how to live.

Originally published in HELIX Magazine on October 5, 2012