A Conversation with Jacob Steenwyk

A Q&A with researcher and artist Jacob L. Steenwyk, about his art, process, aspirations, and the reality of being both a scientist and an artist.

On June 14, Vanderbilt graduate student in the Department of Biological Sciences Jacob Steenwyk led an ArtLab workshop titled “The Junction Between Art and Science.” Jacob’s scientific work blends the fields of computer science, evolution, and genomics to better understand the evolution of fungi. His artistic endeavors are driven by his work in the sciences and primarily aim to raise awareness of endangered animals. He has also created art through algorithms and other computer-generated text, as well as designed various covers for journals such as Yeast, Genetics, and Current Biology. I sat down with Jacob virtually to discuss his work, process, and future aspirations in further detail.

Miquéla Thornton: So just to start off, what was your favorite piece of yours to work on and why?

Jacob L. Steenwyk: My favorite piece that I’ve worked on are the organismal portraits, namely the portraits that feature endangered species. Even though it's artistically not the most cutting edge, It has the most purpose. And it's because of that, that I like it the most. More specifically, the purpose is that I use those prints and sell them on various things like mugs, stickers, or whatever and 100% of the profits go towards global conservation efforts. Also, in a very fantasized sense, I am immortalizing these endangered species by creating portraits of them. So, I think it's because of that purpose--supporting global conservation efforts and artistically immortalizing endangered species--that that's been my favorite project to work on.

MT: Like those and many of your other pieces, I know that your research and science drive a lot of your art. Because of that, I was wondering, are they are there ways in which, being an artist (and also a poet as I’ve noticed) has helped you grow as a scientist or researcher or has are generally affected the way that you conduct research about science?

JLS: Totally! I think that’s something that is not obvious at first glance. Science is really creative because you're given a problem and the creativity is in how you go about solving that issue or testing that hypothesis. Furthermore, a lot of how science is communicated is through imagery (e.g., infographics). So, in my manuscripts wherein I detail scientific discoveries, I’ll make communicative and informative figures that summarize hours of effort. To streamline communication, the figures have to look clean, clear, and concise. Similarly, when I go to conferences or breweries and give talks, I’m faced with the same sort of issue, but the stakes are even higher because you don't have too many words on your slides. As a result, I have to lean on my ability to communicate through figures and images. For those reasons, I think that my ability to effectively communicate through figures has really helped me. As a bonus, I used to be in a band as the lead singer and rhythm guitarist for the group. We played a decent number of shows but not too many. Nonetheless, it was enough for me to learn how to work a stage. I think it's all of those things together that have helped me become effective in communicating science.

MT: It’s really interesting to hear how all those different things, science, writing poetry, music, and art, have been able to simultaneously shape you.

JLS: Thank you! The inverse is true as well. Skills that helped me be a better scientist also helped me be a better artist. For example, some of the art I have created, like the abstract art of algorithms, is generated using computer programming languages. There's this nice mutualism between art and science and I feel like that's when great things happen, when you can combine the best of both worlds. It’s almost like a relationship. A relationship has to be a two-way street, no matter what type of relationship it is, and when it's a one-way street that's a big problem and so, in a way, art and science interact like a two-way street.

MT: Is there any way that the way you conduct science has guided your artistic process?

JSL: Yes, I think without my computer programming expertise I would never have written the abstract art of algorithms. Similarly, I would never have realized that PDFs are text files that only a computer can read. That’s when I started exploring what deleting random text that encodes PDFs would do. Even when it does not appear that my experience as a bioinformatician/computational biologist has had an impact, on second thought it has. For example, among the portraits I have made, I would not have as zealous of passion for global conservation efforts unless I was a biologist.

MT: What great points. Now, how do you go about balancing your research and also being an artist?

JLS: I hate to quote a cliche but I have one in mind. When I was in university, I would ask others how do you pick your career, some would say ‘pick a job that never feels like you're working.’ I always thought to myself ‘dude, this is called work for a reason, what are you talking about?’ and then once I started grad school it hit me! As a graduate student, I’ve never felt like I’ve been ‘working’ per say. This is just what I want to do, and it’s great that they pay me too! But if they didn't pay me, I would probably do it anyway. As a result, none of the ‘work’ I do feels like a burden. In summary, that's how I strike that balance: I want to do science, so I do science; I want to make art, so I make art. f you want it you'll make time for it. For example, if you want to watch TV, you're going to watch TV; if you want to read a book, you're going to read a book. These are just the things that I want to do.

MT: With enjoying them both and making time, I also wanted to know is there if there are any challenges to having two feet in separate disciplines?

JLS: No, there is no challenge. I would say there's only a benefit because we live in an interdisciplinary world. We live in a connected world and so to be a symbol of that connectedness, of that interdisciplinary approach to life has only worked to my benefit. Scientists appreciate that I can conduct rigorous scientific experiments as well as make art. In fact, it often becomes a conversation piece at conferences, so it helps me network because ‘SciArtists’ are so rare. And then on the art side, people are more often than not surprised to find out that I have no formal training. I'm kind of an outsider with my science degrees and that being my main line of work. So that becomes a conversation piece in its own right. Of note, I do not view being a scientist and artist as a challenge because I choose not to view being a scientist and artist as a challenge. If I wanted to, I could tell myself ‘I’m not enough of a scientist for the scientists; I’m not enough of an artist for the artists,’ but then that's letting other people define who you are, rather than you defining yourself.

MT: I like how you talk about everything being interconnected.

JLS: I definitely believe in that.

MT: Is there a particular avenue of science you are hoping to try in the future, or what is your dream project?

JSL: I feel like I have a respectable deep portfolio. I’m not making any sort of comment on quality, but I think that it's now time to get my art into various shows and share it with people. I feel like every time people have seen my work, they've reacted positively so now it's just about sharing that message and that purpose with others. It's a message and purpose that a lot of people can get behind.

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