Month: May 2024

Triptych of Science Blog: Embracing all forms

On 3 May, we hosted the first arts workshop for the Triptych of Science arts initiative, which brings together people working in scientific research culture to create art about their experiences in science at Imperial. The idea of the ‘Tryptich’, a tripartite art piece, is to explore three themes that might not be involved in the typical narratives of research culture, but that tend to surface in any conversation with people working in research: Time, Emotion and Balance.

As the curator in residence, I was tasked with thinking about building an exhibition, the “end-product” of this project. Yet I found myself observing what happens when researchers come together to make art, fascinated by watching the process unfold. If I had to choose one word to describe what this workshop was about, for me, it would be ‘forms’.

As people trickled into the room, they were greeted not by the typical set of classroom tables, but by a single large one formed of several pushed together. On this banquet table was a feast of art materials: string, paper, clay, glue, thread, ink. And of course, some plastic covers to anticipate (and encourage) mess.

3D printing, Fashion, Graphic design, Handcrafts, Interactive art, Marbling, Miniature, Music, Painting in glass, Presentation slides, Sculpture, Sewing, Storytelling, Writing
Scribblings from Mikayla’s notebook

Once everyone found their seats, introductions began: we shared our occupations, research or professional focus, and perhaps most importantly, any experience with art. To my surprise, there was hardly any repetition; almost everyone mentioned a different creative form.




Some participants brought in examples of things they had made: the yellow jacket they were wearing, a cute fluffy dog, an egg of glass filled with purple swirls; paper marbling in bright cellular shapes; an exquisite miniature landscape, featuring a bloodthirsty bunny rabbit nestled among tiny rocks and flowers. We also heard about many examples of participants combining science and art, for instance, a piece of music encoded in DNA, with simulated evolution to mutate the melody over time.

Discussions of science became quite detailed, but these cheerful chats about genetics and material science seemed different around a multidisciplinary table than they might within a laboratory. The knowledge exchange was more social than goal-oriented – not done to build an argument or make conclusions, but simply to share without judgement. This became clear when someone expressed hesitancy about being entirely new to art making. The others soon reassured them that the experience they bring is just as valuable in the context of this project, as a collective initiative of learning and unlearning, art making and thinking about research culture.

A theme emerged that we should not focus simply on making the final product for the installation, but that we should also display evidence of the process. We decided to keep an archive of drafts, notes, sketches, and reflections as equally important to the final art piece.

Then, our artist-in-residence, Ella Miodownik, facilitated the main activity of the day: to make ‘bad’ art. The word ‘bad’ was used to encourage a letting go of judgement and end-products; to not focus on trying to make something good, but just to play around and enjoy the making process. Each person was directed to take a piece of paper and do something to it for five minutes – to manipulate it in some way, whether cutting, folding, or ripping. Drawing or writing was implicitly discouraged due to a lack of any writing utensils on the table – but our own project leader, Stephen Webster, broke this rule, procuring a biro from his pocket and composing a short poem, hidden in a fold of his paper.

Stephen's poem hidden in his craftwork, reads: Classroom on a cold spring day. String, glue, scissors, papers. Light glimmers below the waves.
Stephen’s hidden poem

The craft session therefore began with the very important and serious process of picking out one’s favourite colours of paper and soon, everyone was immersed in making. People were sneaking peeks of what others were doing out of pure curiosity, but were mostly dedicated to their own ideas. And so began a period of comfortable silence, interrupted only by quiet requests to pass the scissors.

Somehow the five minutes I had planned for the activity turned into an hour, with all of us quietly absorbed in art-making – even Mikayla scribbling away and Madisson filming the process were totally immersed in their own quiet practice. It felt like a reversion to childhood and was supremely calming to my nervous system. Being together, and making-with… I think we might have accidentally done some kind of art therapy. (Ella)

Once again, no two forms were the same. Some chose to let their paper remain flattened and experiment with embroidery, cutting and weaving; others created shapes, structures and texture out of the paper. We even explored interactivity – one participant ripped and folded their paper into a perfect cone, before allowing the audience (which was just us, for now!) to unfold the piece in a performance artwork. Ella appealed to my curatorial perspective by hanging her piece from the ceiling, showing how the concept of ‘all forms’ is not just about the piece of work, but also about how the work is displayed. People gradually started to stand up, walk around and talk about each other’s art. Small and sweet conversations were humming in the room.

There was an interesting conversation about handcraft, where we discussed how distinctions between what is considered ‘fine art’ and ‘arts and crafts’ often correlate with hierarchies of gender and class. We resolved that this project would reject this distinction, embrace all forms of art as equal, and celebrate undervalued art forms such as textile.

Ella's illustration of what a multimedia quilt would look like on the white board. Different parts scattering around and linked with strings
The multimedia ‘quilt’

This led nicely to Ella’s announcement of what our final art form would be: A multimedia quilt!

What is a quilt? In a sense, it is a constraint, but one that allows for creativity. It is made up of units, or quilt squares, but each one is different. This gives us options: We could each make our own quilt square, collaborate with someone on a square, or make a square all together. Then we can bring it all together at the end. This way, we can participate in a mix of co-creation and individual or asynchronous working. (Ella)


Participants discussed the idea of creating a collective piece where they could still have the capacity to be imaginative and create their own works. Ideas started to bloom: using materials from the lab, integrating journals and other aspects of daily scientific life, mapping and graphing out emotions or time spent doing science, and how they might want people who come to see the exhibition to engage with the quilt.

All of it will contribute to the multidimensional quilt – paper, string, marbling, clay, writing, video, data collection, narrative, performance. The focus on process, co-creation, multiple media – moving forward these ideas will be central to the project. The ideas of our Tryptich of time, emotion, and balance, will still be simmering there, directly relevant to some quilt “squares’ and more tangential to others. (Ella)

Although some people slowly began to leave and return to the hustle and bustle of their lives, conversations ranging from handcraft to chemistry lingered in the room for another hour. One of our participants brought their marbling materials to the session and gave a brilliant impromptu workshop on the technique, guiding us to create bright abstract prints while explaining the science of surface tension. More importantly, we started to see people making connections, comparing and exchanging their inspiration, and forming a sense of belonging as a group of artists in its early days.

It’s not too late to join the group of scientist-artists and contribute to our tryptich-quilt of research culture! The next session will be held on Wednesday 19th June 12-2pm. Reach out to Stephen Webster ( if you are interested.


Nauka emigrantka/science on the move

Nauka Emigrantka/Science on the Move

We’ve just had our last Friday Forum of the year, on The Ages of Science. Naturally this milestone made me reflect on the series as a whole, and particularly on the first event, held in February.

Our subject was Nauka Emigrantka, translated from the Polish as ‘Science on the Move’. The Polish motif comes from a Warsaw-based colleague of mine, Urszula Kaczorowska. Urszula is a long-time visitor and teacher with Imperial’s Science Communication Unit and is a science journalist at the Polish Press Agency.

Some years ago Urszula became interested in the issue of ‘migrant science’. What is it like, travelling for science? Scientists often uproot themselves to go and pursue their craft in another country. Science is always international, global. What could be more ordinary, then, in moving somewhere that offers the right opportunity? But what are the difficulties in ‘being global’, in migrating for your science? Being a journalist, Urszula sensed a good story.

In its publicity material Imperial describes itself as ‘the United Kingdon’s most international university’. UCL in turn calls itself ‘the global university’. But ‘being international’ can’t be an undiluted good. Mixed in must be joy, opportunity, peril and heart-ache.

These are big themes for the life scientific, and rather under-explored. I was interested too in the philosophical angle. It is a myth of science that it has a method, maybe one method. In that case surely science is the same everywhere. You can see the point: DNA is a double helix, whether you are in Moscow or in Malibu. But do the undoubted facts of science flatten out all difference, all geography, all sociology? Is science more a place of nowhere, rather than somewhere? It seems unlikely.

The job of the Friday Forum is to explore in congenial fashion such issues. And so we gathered one Friday lunchtime, to take stock of the matter. Naturally, three travellers took charge. Urszula herself chaired the session, and her interviewees were two perambulatory scientists, one from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, the other based at Imperial but trained in India.

Dr Szymon Drobniak is an evolutionary biologist, especially interested in bird colouration. Like a migrant bird himself, he moves rather regularly between Poland, Australia and Sweden, spending good patches of time in each. Dr Dhanya Radhakrishnan works in Imperial’s Form and Function lab, and gained her PhD in India in 2021.

Urszula carefully probed our speakers’ motives for their migration, and way they feel about their radical geographical extension. Symon and Dhanya’s perspectives of course were multiple, and far from straightforward. Part of the challenge is in adapting to a new culture: Syzmon was by turns amusing and thought-provoking in comparing the Scandinavian mind-set with that of the Australian. For Dhanya, the remarkable change in opportunity and in the dynamics of research culture made Imperial almost the natural place to be. But not quite natural. She is far from home, from parents and friends, and time is passing.

It is a rule of the Friday Forums that, of the short hour available, half is given to the panel, half to the audience and a question-and-answer session. Ideas, thoughtful and challenging, flowed quickly. We discussed how, for those who have come to the UK from LMICs, the phrase ‘brain-drain’ is too much of a simplification. We talked about how migratory science, as a phenomenon, intersects in complex ways with other features of science that vary nationally. You can’t talk about migrant science without considering the gender gap, and the professional status of women. The rigidities of hierarchy, and how they shift across societies, will impact on a person’s choices when it comes to workplace. And then there is the issue of dominance of English as the lingua franca of science, and how this influences both the native, and the non-native speaker of English.

As ever, our Friday Forum produced no answers. As ever, the simple act of assembling in person, to discuss as a group some contextual issue of science, seemed both profound and easy. Led by Urszula, and with Szymon and Dhanya pondering the issues, no one wanted the discussion to end. As the next class filed into our room, and we made our exit, we soon assembled again down the stairs, in the Medical School café, to continue the discussion. Szymon I noticed, settled there too, with his enormous suitcase, all ready for Heathrow, and Australia, and another lap of his travels.

With thanks to:

Dr Szymon Drobniak, The Jagiellonian University, Krakow
Dr Dhanya Radhakrishan, Department of Bioengineering, Imperial College London
Urszula Kaczorowska, Polish Press Agency, Warsaw

Briefing note for Friday Forum No. 5

Friday Forum May 17 Briefing Note

What do undergraduate education and science research have in common?

The Good Science Project, which organises The Friday Forums, exists to promote debate and development in research culture, here at Imperial College. What is meant by ‘research culture’? Certainly this is a large and amorphous concept. It relates to how scientists work. It is in particular interested in the social and personal factors that are so important in the ‘life scientific’. These factors include intellectual autonomy, the importance of trust between colleagues, the stresses of career security, publication and funding, the pace at which we work, the pleasures of slowly building expertise, the costs of set back and failure, and much else besides.

Today’s discussion

Our main aim in the May 17th Friday Forum is to explore the links between UG education and research culture. Quite often in universities research and education become somewhat separate. We should always aim to challenge that division. Tomorrow’s scientists are drawn from today’s undergraduates. Further, for the majority of UGs who do not go to work in universities, an authentic understanding of scientific culture will be an important part of their CV.

To make clearer the link between UG education and research we frame our discussion around sustainability. Sustainability is of course an important aspect of environmental concern. But it has a wider meaning that makes it relevant both to the life of an undergraduate and to the life of a scientist.  In this wider meaning, something that is sustainable can endure and flourish with no risk of long-term damage to the individual, to the institution, or to the environment.

To see how we can encourage sustainability in both education and in scientific research we will focus on five areas of interest:


Both as students and as scientists, we want to be able to use our imagination. In one way of telling the history of science, our great scientific heroes are often pictured as people of imagination: Einstein with the beam of light he imagined riding upon; Kekulé and his ring of fire that became the benzene ring. But more ordinarily, any scientific observation requires imagination – admittedly an imagination that is mixed in with reason. Science always involves ‘the making of meaning’, a concept not quite captured by a word more commonly used about science, ‘discovery’. For example, how is it that two scientists, looking at the same set of data, can reach completely different conclusions? And when a science student is captivated by something they are learning, is it not their imagination that has been fired? Here is a concluding question: if imagination is central to science research and to science learning, how do we ensure that students and scientists have space and time for the imagination to flourish?


For a long time after Sir Francis Bacon founded modern science in the 17th century, science was considered to be ‘one thing with one method’. We know this as ‘the Enlightenment view’. But today the philosophy of science leads us to doubt the monist view of science. Rather, we sense that Inclusivity – the ability of different groups  to access science as a profession, and science as a body of knowledge, itself enriches science. A many-headed science will be better at finding the way.  We might say: the scientific imagination, is enriched by difference. And the resulting truths may be more relevant to more people. But we ask: how good is the laboratory, or the classroom, at encouraging ‘different views’?


Perhaps when we collaborate – work together – our imagination is enhanced. Suddenly we are ‘thinking jointly’.  Collaboration, whether in the classroom or the laboratory, is much more than the sharing of equipment. It is guessing together, developing ideas together, working together. But for this to happen you need trust and you need time. When we organise collaborative work for students, do we allow enough time? And what are the challenges in making a collaboration successful?


It is often said that good ideas occur at boundaries, at the interface between disciplines. All scientists, and all science students, are aware of the costs of specialisation, of narrowing. But how easy is it, in the classroom or in the laboratory, to traverse disciplinary divides? Are we honest about the difficulties? Both for students and for scientists, are there risks to being interdisciplinary?

Assessment and evaluation

All through this Friday Forum we focus on the themes above. But something big is missing: the question of our success. We want to know we are doing well: we enjoy the approval of our teachers, our peers, the leaders in our field. What are the problems of assessment however? Can it get in the way of learning, or of scientific innovation? Scientists know all about the pressure to publish, and students know that assessment can somehow miss the point. Do students have examples or assessment that enriches learning, and aids collaboration and the imaginative spirit? And do scientists know of ways their work can be followed and appreciated in ways that remain supportive and fruitful?

Dr Stephen Webster

Senior Lecturer in Science Communication

Office of the Vice-Provost (Research and Enterprise)/Science Communication Unit

May 17th 2024