How the arts can help you to craft a successful research career

By | May 7, 2021

Zeenat McLeod hid his interest in handicrafts for a long time. As a mathematician, she was sometimes the only woman in the room, and she did not want to do anything that would be naïve or clichéd.

Then, in 2014, one of her colleagues at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand became pregnant. Along with another rare female mathematician from the department, McLeod planned to produce a crocheted baby blanket.

Instead of hooking up all by himself, he recruited the entire department – consisting mostly of men who had not been there before – to contribute to individual classes. McLeod schooled his comrades after work for lunch breaks and in the pub in Crochet.

His students were enthusiastic. “We ended up with 60 squares for this blanket,” recalls McLeod. “it was very big.” His secret was out and, as of 2016, McLeod was well known in his department as a crafting mathematician; She enjoys sewing, weaving and knitting in addition to studying graph theory.

That year, he founded the non-profit Maths Craft New Zealand, which brings the joys of Mobis strips, hyperbolic surfaces and other concepts to people through textiles and paper crafts.

This is an idea that is catching on in 2018: the US National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recommended that education in these disciplines include humanities, arts, crafts, and design. In fact, the acronym STEMM (denoting science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine) is getting an A for the arts, making it STEAMM.

But the benefit of integrating the arts into scientific enterprise goes beyond the classroom and into academic careers. Although some researchers are interested in science, others pursue different interests such as craft, theater, language, and music. People in the latter category say that instead of being separated from science, these avocations help build skills that are transformed into their day jobs.

Sometimes, they say, art directly inspires scientific questions. At other times, extensive hobbies provide the opportunity to practice skills such as creativity, perseverance, and mastery. This is not to say that scientists should adopt some artistic hobby for only those benefits, but researchers who like to do poetry, write poetry or jazz, should not hide the time spent on those means.

Robert Root-Bernstein’s research, a biologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing, supports the concept. He found that the most successful scientists are more likely to have artistic or musical hobbies 1 than others.

Compared to other researchers, proportionally more Nobel laureates and members of the American National Academies pursued interests such as art, theater, or creative writing 2. And STEMM graduates of Honors College at Michigan State University were more likely to set up licensed patents and companies if they enjoyed Arts or Crafts 3.

Many such researchers tell Root-Bernstein that their hobbies directly affect their STEMM work. When they collide with a wall in their day-to-day work, turning something else can help them relax, and suddenly a solution appears. “It’s a strategy for coming up with ideas,” he says.

Creative effort

Root-Bernstein states that during his upbringing, no one made a distinction between art and science: his mother is a psychologist and artist, and his father was a computer programmer and sculptor. Therefore, he was shocked in 1975 when he received his PhD in History of Science at Princeton University in New Jersey. As he recalls, the university president told the visiting graduate students: “You must be blind and do nothing for the rest of your life.”

Researching his thesis on the origins of physical chemistry, Root-Bernstein found that many successful scientists did not take that approach.

For example, the leading chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur studied drawing when he was young, and was interested in art throughout his scientific career. It has been suggested that his artistic eye helped him discover the purity of molecules 4.

After his PhD, Root-Bernstein trained in biology, but he never left his background in history. As a scientist, he always goes back to the first paper published on a subject. He sometimes finds valuable information that is missed by those who limit his literature searches to recent years.

For example, when neuroscientists started hunting for opioid receptors in the brain, they had a terrible time because opioids have a lot of binding sites. Eventually, scientists succeeded in identifying the receptors, and the field moved forward. But Root-Bernstein wondered why opioid is associated with many parts of the brain.

That line of investigation led him to discover cross-reactivity between opioids, epinephrine and related compounds, and their receptors 5.

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