Artist in the Lab, Scientist in the Studio

A protein depicted as a coiling ribbon, an animation of a chemical reaction, a time-lapse movie of planetary motion—all are examples of scientific visualization, or SciVis, in action. It’s a tool that helps scientists analyze and communicate their research by turning data into images.

Francesca Samsel is taking SciVis a step further by turning scientific images into works of art.

“Art gives you an inroad to a larger understanding,” Samsel says. “You can put up something on the screen that shows you all the science, but if you don’t have an element that connects back to the audience you’re not going to get any buy in. And that’s where I come in.”

Samsel’s subjects are drawn from across the scientific spectrum and include the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the spread of the H1N1 pandemic flu, and freshwater resources in flux on a planetary scale. But her style is consistent from piece to piece: a bright and colorful collage of images that flow in and out of view across a towering display screen; an abstract form made up of, and inspired by, precise scientific data.

Scientific visualization is rife with smooth, multi-colored, and in the words of one of Samsel’s collaborators, “cartoonish” images. Think the finger-painting look of a Doppler radar map. In contrast, Samsel’s digital work has texture and depth with many of the components being first handcrafted—sculpted, painted or printed (Samsel’s specialty)—before being scanned into a computer. Then, they are digitally rendered on high-resolution screens in a way that bring to light details in the work that would likely remain unseen without it.

“Printmaking is fascinating because you get this infinitesimal detail just like in biology. The closer you look the more detail you see,” Samsel says. “When I put it on the screen and I blow it up you can see those things, just like when you put something under the microscope.”

The high-resolution displays that Samsel uses to showcase her pieces are customized systems made up of a dozens of computer screens. Samsel’s favorite canvas is Stallion, a visualization system at the Texas Advanced Computing Center that is the world’s highest-resolution tiled display, because of the luminosity and detail of the 328 megapixel resolution display (that’s 328 million pixels) brings to her pieces. In Stallion’s case, the system is comprised of 80 monitors.

“You think, ‘Why do you need all that?’ I can tell you it makes a huge difference in depth and richness of imagery and that’s important because it’s captivating,” Samsel says about Stallion’s abilities. “That’s the key. You have to captivate your audience first, no matter who they are.”

Samsel’s works do not use arbitrary imagery as their source material. Instead, she collaborates directly with scientists, using their data and scientific visualizations from images bound for journal articles, presentations, or posters to build a work of art exploring similar themes.

For researchers, Samsel’s artwork serves as a reservoir of captivating images to use in presentations or lectures. But having an artist in the lab and a scientist in the art studio can benefit the creative process in a much larger way than exchanging materials.

“We don’t dump a whole bunch of data in Francesca’s lap and she takes it and does her own thing,” says Craig Tweedie, a professor in biology and environmental science and engineering at UT-El Paso. “It’s a process that goes backwards and forwards and we’re both learning, we’re both discovering, we’re both accepting new ideas and new ways of doing things and visualizing things.”

Tweedie researches how environmental change, climate change, and human disturbance affect the extreme ecosystems of the Arctic tundra and Chihuahuan desert. The wind, precipitation, carbon flow, and other measurements that Tweedie and his team take generate vast amounts of data—information that Samsel is using to create a piece she is presently calling ‘Turbulence and Topography’ that explores how climate change is altering landscapes.

The resulting work of art from Samsel and Tweedie’s collaboration will be on display at the International Symposium of Electronic Arts (ISEA) this September in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a conference dedicated to “creating energy and exchange between art, science and technology,” according to ISEA 2012 artistic director Andrea Polli.

“[Scientific] issues are so big we need everyone,” Polli says. “Artists, technologists, designers, everyone needs to be engaged with questions because the problems are so large and urgent. I think that’s something that comes out at the symposium and certainly the work of Francesca. How can we understand our very technical, very complex scientific issues without being able to see and visualize them?”

The scientific data on which Samsel bases her work will serve as a showcase of facts and figures to the astute scientific observer—but Samsel says her works are not meant to be a direct science lesson, but an invitation to learn more about important, often global, issues.

“Good artwork draws you in on a gut level and makes you want to explore more,” said Samsel. “What I do is present science combined with art so the richness of a topic is accurate and accessible.”

This story first appeared on the Texas Advanced Computing Center website.

Top photo: A still from “Turbulence and Topography,” a work about environmental research in the desert and Arctic based on Craig Tweedie’s research. Displayed in the CyberShare Visualization Lab, UT-El Paso.

Left: Francesca Samsel reviewing images on Stallion [the TACC/ACES Visualization Lab].

Right: Craig Tweedie is an ecology professor at UT-El Paso who collaborated with Samsel on a recent project.


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