STEM professors draw inspiration from art

From photography to winemaking and illustration, professors in science and engineering combine passions for art with careers in STEM

A photograph of an ancient sandstone citadel by Floris Van Bruegel, taken in the Mojave desert. Courtesy of Art in Nature Photography.

A sunrise over some red rocks in the Mojave Desert.

STEM, or Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, are fields known for creating connections, solving problems and integration of disciplines. The world of art also uses these crucial skills, and recent pushes from advocates focus on changing the acronym to STEAM.

Art and science are more closely related than most would think. While there are different traditions, the goal of sharing an understanding of the world is a central part of the two disciplines. Reno's Artown event, which occurs every year in July, features celebrations of artists and musicians of all mediums.

At the University, the cross-over between STEM and art can be found in many departments.

Assistant professor of mechanical engineering Floris Van Breugel is a photographer in his spare time. His photography website is flooded with images from places like the Southwest Desert to Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

Van Bruegel said his interest in photography dates back to when he was seven years old and interested in birds, but couldn't find a camera capable of take quality images. Instead, he began painting pictures of birds that he found in books and magazines.

Digital photography evolved over time, and as an undergrad in college, Van Breugel was finally able to afford a camera with quality zoom capabilities for capturing photos of birds.

"My photography and scientific interests are certainly connected," he said. "I see art as a way of starting a conversation and encouraging the viewer to ask questions like ‘what is that?' It provides an opportunity for me, as a scientist, to teach them something new in an engaging way.

Van Breugel also said that, whenever possible, he uses his photography to illustrate his research, such as a photography series that focused on his study of alkali flies at Mono Lake in Mono County, California.

"I enjoy every minute of the wilderness, regardless of my photographic success," Van Breugel states on his website.

Retired computer science and engineering faculty member Yaakov Varol has always been interested in both science and art.

"I took courses in glass blowing and apprenticed with experienced glass blowers," Varol said. "When we moved to Reno in 1996, I did not find a place where I could practice glass blowing so I moved on to creating stained glass windows."

Varol also practices winemaking, a hobby that he was introduced to by his colleague, Ed Wishart, former Professor Emeritus of computer science and engineering at the University.

"Every phase of winemaking is fun and exciting, from picking the grapes and crushing them, bringing the juice to your garage so that the house smells great for a couple weeks, to bottling, and then the best part being the drinking," Varol said. "Not all of my wines turned out to be great, one or two were not drinkable but good for cooking."

Art and engineering are closely related, as they both involve a process and a precise procedure that one needs to adhere to. Varol believes that engineering is part art and part inspiration, with the latter element being a major component in art also.

"My advice to all students in science and engineering is to search for the art in all of your projects, be inspired by nature and introduce art in all that you do," he said.

College of Science at the University features professors in STEAM

Before becoming an Atmospheric Science Assistant Professor in the Physics Department, Neil Lareau was oil painting at Carnegie Mellon University. Lareau started drawing in middle school, mostly comic book drawings, and then took a few university level drawing classes while in high school. He would then go on to attend college and receive a Bachelor of Fine Arts with a focus in oil painting. While he was a gallery attendant at the Andy Warhol Museum, he started reading about atmospheric sciences and solving the problems from the books. He then had an internship opportunity at the Mount Washington Observatory, where he ended up working for four years making weather observations on a mountaintop. Lareau realized he wanted to continue his education, so he moved to Utah and kept applying to graduate school in atmospheric science at the University of Utah until he was able to achieve a spot in the graduate program.

Although Lareau is a busy professor, grant writer and parent, he still continues to draw and hopes to start painting again as well. He believes art school and art has impacted how he understands the world and believes there is a connection between art and science.

"For me at least, both art and science are about looking at what is actually there in front of me. It's about stripping away the conception of what you think you're looking at (a preconceived image) and looking intently at the details of what you see," said Lareau. "In art I do this with my eyes, in science I do it with sensors that let me see things that my eyes can't, such as radars and lidars which use electromagnetic radiation to probe the structure of the atmosphere."

Matthew Forister is a Trevor J. McMinn Research Professor of Biology and is also known as the "Butterfly Guy" because of his Western Butterfly Research project. Besides researching butterflies and teaching as a biology professor at the university, Forister is also an illustrator. He drew and painted when he was a kid, however he recently found a new interest in drawing with his daughter. Shortly after he started drawing again, Forister had the opportunity to draw organisms for a scientific paper and continued seeking out opportunities to draw for publications. He believes his illustrations make his research look visually interesting by adding art into his scientific papers. He also tells his graduate students to add drawings or photographs to their published works. Forister loves studying organisms, including insects, because of their color and diversity. He believes the relationship between art and science dates back in history.

"In terms of scientific tradition, hand drawings also give us a little connection to our scientific predecessors who of course would include illustrations with their work because there were no photographs," he said.

In the community of Reno, many initiatives can be found as outside support for artists, scientists and more.

"The more we can encourage divergent thinking and creative problem solving in our education system and to not be afraid of failure, the greater the chance of producing the STEM leaders of tomorrow," said Craig Rosen, professional development administrator of the Desert Research Institute.

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