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Visualizing the Unseen

08/02/2013

Now that she has retired from teaching at Northern Virginia Community College, sculptor and lecturer Rebecca Kamen MFA 78 SC is doing anything but slowing down. In fact, her inspirational work bridging art and science is taking her places she never expected to go, while also influencing some of the nation’s best scientific minds.

After listening to her lecture at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) last year, a young neuroscientist introduced her to the work of 19th-century Spaniard Santiago Ramón y Cajal, commonly known as the father of modern neuroscience. Cajal’s drawings inspired Kamen to create a sculptural piece based on the human retina, which led to a three-month residency at the NIH and a trip to Madrid to do research in the neuroscientist’s archives.

“Cajal’s work resonates so deeply,” says Kamen. “It completely changed the way I see.” She believes that his scientific breakthroughs wouldn’t have been possible without his creative endeavors and the arts training he received as a child. “I had this hypothesis that it was his artist’s eye that enabled him to envision neurons,” she explains – “to see what no one else was able to see.”

Kamen is in synch with RISD’s own STEM to STEAM efforts, believing that the kind of thinking and risk-taking involved in the artistic process will advance cross-disciplinary scientific research. It allows thinkers in different fields to step back and see the big picture – gaining the perspective needed to make the important connections that catalyze a breakthrough. “Artists are universal investigators,” she says. “We look at everything from different angles, rather than going down a straight path. That’s when discovery happens. That’s what wins Nobel prizes!”

In her work with neuroscientists and astrophysicists, Kamen says that she’s “able to make connections and see parallels that they never saw before. You start seeing universal patterns at all different scales!”

Kamen is passionate about these connections, almost childlike in her exuberance. “I’m trying to bring back the awe and wonder about the world around me that I remember feeling as a kid,” she explains. For instance, as a nine-year-old she remembers being blown away the first time she saw Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She sees the painting as exploring the notion of time as the fourth dimension – a notion that continues to inspire her own work. “Those seeds get planted when we’re really young,” she says. 

Kamen collaborates with people of all ages but is particularly excited about the work she's been doing for the past three years with high school and undergraduate students participating in the Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program (ASSIP) at George Mason University. The students are assigned hands-on scientific research projects in a wide range of fields ­– bioengineering, chemistry, nanotechnology, neuroscience and many more – and are asked to create a work of art that visually explains their research. In 2011 a team of students working in Dr. Ted Dumas’ neuroscience laboratory created Spatial Memory, an image of the brain’s hippocampus presented as constellations in space, which later made the cover of the scientific journal Neuroinformatics.

This fall Kamen will be speaking about her work to a new crop of high school students as part of the Nifty Fifty series organized by the USA Science & Engineering Festival in Washington, DC. “I’m excited about using my work to help others,” says Kamen, “and about creating bridges between disciplines. It’s very humbling to realize that artwork can have powerful outcomes in fields outside of your own. And students thank me. They feel pulled between art and science and love hearing about the unique opportunities available to people who can do both.”

Simone Solondz

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tags: alumni, technology, innovation, interdisciplinary, research, STEAM, Sculpture

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The façade of the Chace Center, a new multipurpose hub that opened
in 2008, offers an interesting contrast to the historic campus
buildings that surround it.