do you mind? (brain, meet brian)

Today Marcus Wilson & Kathrin Otrel-Cass hosted Science in the Public, a symposium for people involved in communicating with the public through a range of initiatives (including Cafe Scientifique aka Science in the pub). And there’s what looks like being a most promising Cafe event tonight, with Shaun Hendy leading a session on nanotechnology. Anyway, one of the presentations really caught my imagination, & I thought I’d talk about it here.

Megan Dowie is a Research Fellow at the University of Auckland’s Centre for Brain Research . Almost by accident, she found herself the co-curator of an exhibition that presents artworks inspired by the research of CBR scientists. Megan is a really engaging presenter & she quickly drew us all into the story of this collaborative exhibition.

The brain is the seat of movement, memory, cognition, identity, dreams. And we don’t know a lot about how it operates, although staff at CBR (among others) are constantly expanding the boundaries of our knowledge. There’s also the question of how to raise awareness of this research in the wider community. At the launch of the Centre for Brain Research, in November last year, Megan bumped into Leah Forsyth, who with her sister Erin runs The Busy Nice creative agency. They got talking, & the idea of an art exhibition inspired by science bubbled to the surface. This serendipitous event led to the Do You Mind? exhibition. (I quite like this example of serendipity – it reflects the way in which scientists too can make fortuitous discoveries while doing or looking for something quite unrelated to the eventual outcome.)

Over subsequent meetings they put together the proposal that became Do You Mind? Approaches to scientists & artists generated sufficient interest for them to put together 15 scientist/artist pairings. The original introductions were made over pizza & beer at an off-campus location – far more relaxed than coming in to the lab. The scientists showed their artist collaborators around their labs, demonstrated what they were doing, in some cases gave the artists hands-on experience of what was being done. (Megan showed images of brains & brain cells that some of the researchers had generated as part of their work – these images are in themselves beautiful & it was hard to imagine what the artists might do with them.) Then the artists had 8 weeks to deliver an artwork that gave form to the ideas & concepts they’d heard & seen.

In the end there will be almost 40 artworks in the exhibition – this must surely show the inspirational nature of this partnership between art & science. (Megan showed us some & they are lovely.) And this will hopefully generate wider community interest in the research that’s been highlighted through art. But there are greater benefits here too. I’d hazard a guess that both groups recognised that those who specialise in a particular field are ordinary people doing not-so-ordinary things 🙂 In their feedback, the participating researchers indicated that while they’d learned about art, they’d also learned about new ways of communicating about their science. The artists gained an enhanced appreciation of just what scientists actually do. One artist’s comment seemed to sum up science quite well: the innumerable task of generating problems to solve tomorrow. Do You Mind? strikes me as a powerful example of thinking outside the square when it comes to science communication – doesn’t always need to involve the written or spoken word, & is likely to draw in a wider, or a different, sector of the community.

Oh, and Brian? Who hasn’t typed ‘brian’ when intending to get ‘brain’? But as Megan says, the original mistype gave the project a ‘casual’ name that also personified it (and it was quicker to say!)

PS Yikes!!! I forgot to add the most important bit – the dates & venue!!! Do You Mind? will run at the ‘Irongate‘ "Ironbank" (on K Road). from its launch It’s launched on 28th July & will be open to the public from July 29th until (if I remember correctly) August 7th (yay! I remembered that part OK!).

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