Better Science Through Art. Yes, Art.

Friday, April 11, 2014 - 9:00am
Ellen Alvord ’89 (facing camera) teaching students in the Art Museum. Photo by Natalie Kulikowski ’11
Many of professor Renae Brodie’s first-year biology students start the semester confident that they know what to expect in an introductory science course. But during the first few weeks of class, they’re analyzing not cell structure under a laboratory microscope but a seventeenth-century Flemish painting—in the MHC Art Museum. Applying the scientific process in a new setting, they observe a painting from a distance, then move closer to note details. Finally, they describe and explain the paintings, offering evidence for their interpretations.
Brodie’s students are hardly alone. Sixty-two professors in twenty-six academic disciplines brought their students to the museum in the past year.
What’s the draw? Learning skills that will help students succeed now and long after graduation. John Stomberg, museum director, has a vision of the museum as a campus crossroads where art meets ideas—and students—of all kinds. 
For the past four years, Ellen Alvord ’89 has been the museum’s primary connection to faculty and students. As Weatherbie Curator of Academic Programs, she helps professors shape lessons and select which of the museum’s 17,000 objects best fit each class. “We’re reexamining what a liberal-arts college can provide in the twenty-first century that’s important and relevant to training the leaders and innovators of tomorrow,” she explains.
Mount Holyoke students have learned from art since its earliest days. But the Art Museum serves a particularly important purpose in this digital age, according to Stomberg. “When students hold a Rembrandt or an ancient Roman coin in their hands, something astounding happens. Our 138-year-old museum is taking on the challenge of being a generator of ideas relevant to the future, not just a storehouse for the past.”
Here’s how Art Museum work helps pre-medical and other science-oriented students.
Premed Students Improve Diagnostic Skills

A group of future physicians clusters in the museum’s Carson Teaching Gallery for a biology class. “To be great at medicine, your powers of observation need to be stellar, because patients don’t tell you everything you need to know,” says guest speaker Dr. Jill Griffin. So the students—who previously have practiced precise description using seventeenth-century Dutch paintings—say what they see in a series of clinical photographs.
One is obviously a common blister, but Griffin pulls the students back from rushing to a diagnosis. “OK,” she says, summarizing their observations. “We see a thumb with a red ring around the outside, topped by a fluid-filled sack of skin.” Students add details until they deduce, Sherlock Holmes style, that this patient’s hand was burned by splashes of hot liquid. “Art forces us to look at the world differently,” says Emilie Heidel ’10. “I think the point was to teach us how to stop making judgments and to let the data tell us what it has to say—a useful skill for both artists and scientists.”
Dean of prehealth programs David Gardner explains that this method helps premed students “because those who are trained to be more precise in their observations will be better at making diagnoses in a clinical setting.” Stomberg describes the advantage using more artistic language. “To a doctor, the difference between having an ear infection or not is the difference between having your ear be Veronese red versus Titian red.”
Neurobiology and Color Perception

Students in Professor Susan Barry’s Neurobiology of Art and Music course comprehended color perception by recreating a black-and-white photograph by Ansel Adams using torn pieces of colored paper. The challenge was to select colors with the same luminance as each shade of grey, then to arrange the colored scraps to create the same shading and depth effects as the original image. Sure, Barry could just have lectured about luminance, but, she says, “there’s nothing like doing work yourself to really understand a concept.”
Completing an art exercise was initially intimidating for some science students, Barry admits, but she says they enjoyed it. “I take them out of the lab—an environment they’re used to—and put them in the museum, where what they see is for the most part new to them,” she says. “There’s plenty of neurological evidence that we learn best when presented with novelty.”
This article was adapted from a feature story that originally appeared in the spring 2013 issue of the Mount Holyoke Alumnae Quarterly.