Science & Research

Art for the sake of science

Program seeks new ways to visualize data

Contributing Writer
Thursday, October 13, 2011

Science and art may appear to be distinct, but collaboration between the two, often born of necessity, makes it clear they are not mutually exclusive. The membrane between them becomes permeable in the case of data visualization, an area in which various efforts are underway on College Hill.

Casey Dunn, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, has been exploring the evolution of the genomes  of less-studied organisms, such as deep-sea jellyfish. After sequencing the genes, he and other members of the Dunn Lab identify the same genes in different organisms.

“It’s hard enough to look at one genome,” Dunn said. “But we’re trying to look at tens or hundreds at a time. The data is vastly larger than anything you could open in Excel.”

Through the support of the National Science Foundation’s Environmental Program to Stimulate Research, the Dunn Lab has laid the computational infrastructure for analyzing data sets that will eventually be used for visualizations.

Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design are two of nine partner schools in the Rhode Island chapter of the NSF program, called “EPSCoR” for short, which specializes in marine life, particularly the response of marine organisms to variations in climate.

Among other objectives, the program helps scientists visualize the huge, complex data sets they encounter and analyze in their work. Much of this work in visualization is conducted through RISD and its Innovation Studio, an interdisciplinary collaboration between scientists, designers and students.

Thomas Ockerse, professor of graphic design at RISD, teaches a course in which students visually represent scientific information. While the visual representation of complex data is not a new field, the interactive nature of more recent technological innovations makes complicated data more accessible to the public, according to Amanda Sim, a RISD graduate student.

“The thing that we’ve been focusing on is figuring out how the scientists can visualize their own data, because they’re dealing with millions of data points, and they have to look at it in a meaningful way,” said David Zacher, another RISD graduate student.

Zacher visually represents complex data sets through computer programming in his “Experimental Data Visualization” course. In the class, he analyzed and represented meteorological data from Hurricane Irene. This data set is considerably smaller than data sets usually analyzed through the NSF program.  In the future, Zacher said the class will use larger, genetic data sets.

While the work in Zacher’s class is primarily screen-based, the visual representation of science can take many forms. The use of art to enhance the accessibility of science has long been a subject of interest for Courtney Mattison MA’11. Mattison first became involved with the NSF program through her master’s adviser, Heather Leslie, assistant professor of environmental studies and biology.

As a high school student, Mattison, who described herself as a visual learner, began sculpting the organisms she studied in her marine biology class.

Now, she applies her artistic skills to promote coral reef stewardship. Mattison’s sculpture of a dying coral reef was displayed at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, D.C.

“It helps to have some artistic representation,” Mattison said, “in order to care about learning something abstract.”