November 29, 2019
Staff Accomplishment

Scientist, Meet Artist

image of Jason McDermott

Andrea Starr, PNNL

Jason McDermott is a PNNL computational biologist whose research interests include machine learning, data integration, and network inference. He unravels complex data related to cancer, infectious disease, and soil microbiomes. His latest co-authored papers include one on tumor proteomic profiles and another on influenza pathogenicity.

Photo of Map of Manuscript Earth and attendees discussing poster
Gallery viewers at the University of California, Irvine, discuss Jason McDermott’s “The Map of Manuscript-Earth” during a mid-November arts and literature conference. Photo is courtesy of Jason McDermott.

So imagine the culture shock felt when McDermott arrived at the University of California, Irvine, on November 7 to deliver a panel presentation on science communications at the 2019 annual meeting of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts, a humanities-tilted group that focuses on how to imaginatively represent science, medicine, and technology.

It was heady stuff—hundreds of people and three 12-hour days of talks. There were presentations, for instance, on color theory in early Italian futurism, micro-particles of the human voice, mapping haunted data, and rowboat phenomenology.

McDermott is more prepared than most scientists for this kind of culture shock. For one, he went to Reed College (B.A., biology, 1993), a liberal arts institution with a strong humanities core. So grounded, he set off for Oregon Health & Science University (Ph.D., microbiology/structural virology, 2000).

Also, McDermott’s personal avocation is writing and drawing comics under the label Red Pen/Black Pen, where he delivers sly and wry insights into academia, science research, and writing peer-reviewed papers.

Close up image of the Map of Manuscript Earth
When writing a peer-reviewed paper, McDermott warns in his “Map of Manuscript-Earth,” watch out for Rabbit Hole Meadows, Sidetrack Road, and other impediments. The drawing was featured in the conference's art gallery.

“Grant me the serenity to write what I can write,” begins his Academic’s Serenity Prayer, which ends with “and the wisdom to dump the rest on my co-authors.”

Despite his artistic sensibilities, McDermott reflects that the conference “was like traveling to a foreign country. It opened my eyes in many ways.”

Looking for Metaphors

For one thing, during an event with rooms full of people whose job is to think of metaphors, McDermott considered how metaphors—explanatory, but not literal, figures of speech—are a preoccupation for scientists, too.

“I think about metaphors a lot,” he said. “How do you boil down a science concept?”

At the same time, metaphors can both explain and constrain science, said McDermott. If, for instance, you cast microbial relationships as a war for resources (and not as varieties of competition), “metaphors can limit the questions we ask,” he said.

Artists and literature scholars, like scientists, often rely on jargon and buzz words, the private languages of a discipline that can obscure content.

Sharpening Presentations

The most obvious commonality between the sciences and the arts, McDermott noticed, is how they share some of the same communications pitfalls—obscure language, few or no visuals, and writing a promising title only to make the content dull.

“In more than half of the talks,” he said, “presenters simply sat, head down and read from a manuscript.” Visuals were often static or absent.

McDermott sat in on talks about sounds recorded on an asteroid and how artists view the microbiome. “The topics were fascinating, but it was hard to listen to them.”

Dull presentations are “totally normal (which is) crazy to me too,” said Chris Wildrick, a Syracuse University associate professor of studio arts. He’s a dinosaur aficionado who often builds datasets into his art. After a chance meeting in the spring, he invited McDermott to be part of his Saturday morning (November 9) panel on “Comics in Culture.”

Just Add Humor

Image of McDermott next to his Map of Manuscript Earth
In the conference gallery, McDermott nabs a selfie in front of his artwork, which hangs in his office now.

During the panel, McDermott delivered a talk, “Comics, humor, and art in scientific communication.”

He called the sequential images and text of a comic a way to clarify science across disciplines and as an entry point to lay audiences. Adding in humor also “lowers the energy barrier to communication,” the abstract noted, and eases the way to understanding important concepts and findings.

The same lessons “you could say about communications in any field,” said McDermott.

On the panel with him were Wildrick (on a database of changes in comic characters over time); artist and independent scholar Andrea Buckvold (on graphic novels); and Slippery Rock University literature professor Mark O’Connor (on pirated Italian versions of Felix the Cat, a comic character dating to the era of silent films).

Alone, and Together

In many other cases, presentations were by non-scientists but contained science themes, including algorithms, eclipses, invasive species, microbes, and biohacking. Still, most were couched in the language of the humanities, said McDermott, which can be impenetrable to outsiders—similar to trying to explain ubiquitin ligase effectors (something he helped do in a recent paper).

McDermott was at the conference for three days and scouted dozens of talks. In the end, he suspects he was the only practicing scientist there. But he noticed “clear parallels” in the way scientists and artists need public outreach.

McDermott also met a lot of people outside the box of his science, including Wildrick, who believes both scientists and artists are problem-solvers and analytical, though in different ways. And McDermott met University of Michigan art professor Jane Prophet, whose work has involved neuroscientists and heart surgeons and who is organizing the 2020 conference.

“I would go back again,” said McDermott, who enjoyed the surprises the arts bring, and felt that without them “you can get stuck in the way you think.”

Published: November 29, 2019

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