Research as Art competition provides platform for scientists to be creative

Laura Zhang

After spending years looking down at a microscope, Suzy Moody, Institute of Life Sciences student at Swansea University, was surprised to see a bacterial colony in the form of an eye staring straight back at her. 

“I think I’m influencing them, but in reality, I think our research shapes us, defines us, inspires and astounds us,” Moody said. “The bacteria in control after all.” 

On April 27 in the PCL Scholars Commons, Richard Johnston, materials science associate professor at Swansea University in Wales, presented Moody’s entry, as well as those of other researchers that competed in the Research as Art competition. 

According to Johnston, who founded the competition, Research as Art provides a platform for scientists to convey the creativity behind their research. 

Swansea University researchers, who range from undergraduates to professors in fields such as the humanities, social sciences and engineering, can submit competition entries. The submission consists of a high quality research image and a short narrative about the “human aspect” of the project.

Johnston said that Research as Art differs from other image competitions or academic paper presentations because it is not a science competition. Instead, it focuses on conveying emotions that would engage scientists from different disciplines and the general public.

“If you’re doing a PhD, research is your life. It dominates your projects and anything you do, but as the public, you simply don’t see that,” Johnston said. “And I don’t know why we hide that because it’s really important. It helps break down barriers between the public and the University.”

This competition also allows the researchers to express their innovative processes in their projects, said Johnston.

“To devise a project as a researcher, you have to be creative. You have to come up with something original and then deliver that,” Johnston said. “If you don’t get funding, you have to be even more creative in doing the thing you wanted to do.”

Other images in the presentation included those from a climate scientist that described the loneliness of fieldwork and a solar scientist who discussed how important it is to fail in science. 

Johnston also said that the scientists want to grab attention while still maintaining the scientific integrity of their pictures. 

Hasanthi Seth, international relations and global studies senior at UT, said the striking images and narratives will make it easier for the general public to engage with scientific research. 

“These images have made it a lot easier for people who don’t really understand the vernacular of scientific research to be able to see it more clearly from their own perspective,” Seth said. “And then it’s up to them to facilitate some sort of change.” 

The project has increased the percentage of researchers involved in public engagement and serving as STEM ambassadors, according to Johnston. 

“Engagement is a two-way process,” Johnston said. “It’s great if it captures someone’s attention, but if you don’t create conversation or lead to any dialogue around that, it’s difficult to prescribe that as engagement.”