Art Meets Science

Penn State faculty members use visual arts, multimedia, and technology to communicate research in new ways.

Magnifying the Microscopic

David Hughes, Penn State professor of entomology and biology, studies the effects of something that sounds like it’s straight out of a science fiction story: a fungus that infects living ants, takes control of their muscles against their will, and forces the ant to become a mindless zombie driven to help spread the fungus to take over even more ants. Now, “The Zombie Ant Experience,” an installation in the Millennium Science Complex at University Park, brings this research to life through art.

Daryl Branford, a design visualization specialist with the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, knew this research had the potential to capture people’s imagination, and he brought together an interdisciplinary team including engineers, architects, computer scientists, and artists to create “The Zombie Ant Experience.” The result? An intricate metalwork sculpture that details the life span of the fungus and the infected ants, complete with an augmented reality (AR) overlay that lets you step into the world of the zombie ants on their own terms.

“‘The Zombie Ant Experience’ gives us an opportunity to reflect on just how amazing natural processes are and have a moment of awe. That's the best of what science and art both do.” —Cole Hons, director of communications and marketing, the Huck Institutes

“This project literally lets people walk in and experience what it’s like to be an ant under the forest canopy, and the AR then leads them through the life cycle of the fungus and its infection of the ant,” said Talley Fisher, a local sculptor who worked closely with Branford on the installation. “It’s really cool. You say ‘zombie ants’ and people say ‘what?’ It’s super sci-fi sounding, but it’s real. The sculpture brings this wild science to life, creating a unique educational experience.”

Branford agrees: the science strikes many people as sounding like it’s too outlandish to be true, but that’s part of what makes the research and the project so exciting.

“We’re pulling back the curtain on an invisible world that’s happening around you all the time,” Branford said. “People should be excited about science; it’s a part of our everyday lives. And this project is taking this amazing science and bringing it to the public in a very tangible, very exciting way.”

Using actual data from Hughes’ research, Branford used his skills as a design visualization specialist to develop three-dimensional AR graphics that would tell the story in an engaging and accessible way. From the pathways of ants marching across the forest floor to a gigantic animated ant taking up most of the building’s lobby, the AR lets visitors explore the research both in detail and a larger context.

“It’s been really cool to merge the physical space with the digital,” Branford said. “You can get a pretty good idea of the research from the physical sculpture, but we wanted to bring it to life and let visitors be fully immersed in the science.”

“People should be excited about science; it’s a part of our everyday lives. And this project is taking this amazing science and bringing it to the public in a very tangible, very exciting way.” —Daryl Branford, design visualization specialist

Cole Hons, director of communications and marketing for the Huck Institutes, said “The Zombie Ant Experience” will be the first in a series of multimedia projects exploring the breadth of research being done by Huck’s multidisciplinary researchers—and that the series is off to a great start.

“We’re all a part of the natural world whether or not we think too much about it,” Hons said. “‘The Zombie Ant Experience’ gives us an opportunity to reflect on just how amazing natural processes are and have a moment of awe. That's the best of what science and art both do.”

Repurposing Plastics

Plastic bottles. Kitchen bags. Toys. Medical devices. Each year, mankind produces more than 320 tons of plastic—roughly the same weight as all of humanity itself put together.

“Think about that,” said Denice Wardrop, Penn State professor of ecology and geography. “Every year we recreate humanity in plastic.”

Across the University, multiple efforts are underway to communicate this impact through art. Recently, the Palmer Museum of Art was home to “Plastic Entanglements: Ecology, Aesthetics, Materials,” a contemporary exhibition that featured sixty works including a video piece about plastic items found in the stomach of a camel, whimsical sculptures made from recycled materials, and a massive chandelier made from plastic bottles.

“Art is an amazing entrance ramp to starting this conversation, to presenting these ideas in thought-provoking and tangible ways,” Wardrop said. “People are very open when they come to experience art, giving us this opportunity to explore this complex relationship through art.”

Elsewhere on campus, The Arboretum at Penn State is also telling the story of our complex relationship with plastics through art and outreach. In partnership with the Palmer Museum, the Arboretum commissioned artist Aurora Robson to create three original sculptures made entirely from Penn State’s industrial waste. The exhibition, “Gravity Schmavity: Repurposed Plastic Sculpture by Aurora Robson,” uses natural and organic shapes to communicate the long-lasting impact of plastic. 

“We are inspired and excited to create a discovery-based curriculum in a natural setting to inspire future stewards of the earth.” —Linda Duerr, coordinator of educational programs for the Arboretum

“‘Plastic Entanglements’ now connects to the beautiful outdoor museum of the Arboretum through these sculptures by Aurora Robson,” said Linda Duerr, coordinator of educational programs. “We have many ideas in development and are excited to use various artistic forms and media to raise awareness about the history, uses, and abuses of plastic.”

The children’s garden is an ideal place to spread this awareness, says Duerr, and hands-on educational art activities in the garden occur throughout the summer.

“We have developed several projects in the garden including plastic bottle cap flower murals, water bottle spirals, cardboard tube owls, and using natural materials for making art,” Duerr said. “A member of our garden staff crafted an albatross model to demonstrate for children how this bird is able to ingest plastic and how that affects the feeding of their young. We then connect that to our own watershed and the creatures that inhabit our natural lands, air, and waterways.”

For Duerr, art is a powerful tool to connect with the garden’s patrons of all ages, but a strong emphasis on childhood education ensures future generations will carry this message on for years to come.

“We are inspired and excited to create a discovery-based curriculum in a natural setting to inspire future stewards of the earth.”

Behind the Paintbrush

Maggie Davis doesn’t look like a detective. She doesn’t wear a trench coat, a fedora, or carry a magnifying glass. But she’s solving a mystery that dates back to the early years of the United States and the birth of the American artistic tradition.

It began with a simple question: Who is the man in red?

Davis, a recent art history graduate at Penn State, was discussing her hopes to combine her love of both art history and the physical sciences with Patrick McGrady, curator at the Palmer Museum of Art, who showed her a number of mysterious pieces with unanswered questions in the museum’s collection. One painting in particular stood out to her: a portrait of a man in regal crimson attire, painted by an unknown artist.

Who was this enigmatic figure? Davis found herself a bona fide mystery, one she had the training and tools to solve through her art history and biochemistry studies.

“Ever since high school, I knew I wanted to combine science and history, and when I took my first art history class here at Penn State, I fell in love with the field,” said Davis. “Now, through this project, I’m really able to take everything I’ve learned and figure out how to apply science to answer real-world questions.”

Maggie Davis Banner Photo

Art History-Materials Characterization-Banner Photo

Penn State senior Maggie Davis inspects an 18th-century portrait of John Carson prior to removing paint flakes for elemental analysis. In partnership with Penn State's Materials Characterization Lab, Davis will attempt to determine the specific ingredients of paint and canvas samples extracted.

Image: Stephanie Swindle Thomas

“She’s using approaches that art historians and conservators would use in tandem; art historians often don’t have scientific expertise, while scientists often lack a high level of art expertise—and Maggie is doing both” —Patrick McGrady, curator at the Palmer Museum of Art

Davis theorized that the man in red was Dr. John Carson—a physician who helped found the medical college at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1700s. And, like any good detective, Davis had the perfect partners to help her crack the case: the researchers of the Materials Research Institute.

“Our lab was planned and conceived around interdisciplinary research,” said Vince Bojan, a surface scientist with the Materials Characterization Lab and one of the researchers who joined Davis in her investigation. “This project is a great example of how we can apply materials characterization across disciplines. There is a great deal of very interesting and useful science and research that can be done when our disciplines interact.”

Davis, along with Bojan and fellow materials researcher Julie Anderson, used Penn State’s advanced materials characterization tools to delve deeper into the mystery of the man in red.

Davis knew she could use X-rays and a noninvasive X-ray fluorescence (XRF) tool to reveal the elements present in the painting’s pigments. She could then compare the elements in the painting to those in other paintings from the same period.

While the analysis found that the brown pigments were likely made of organic materials, it wasn’t able to reveal what kind of organic material. It also found that some areas were painted over in the 20th century, which meant she also needed to examine the original paint.

Although she’s still not sure of the makeup of the organic materials in the brown pigment, Davis discovered that the red pigments get their color through small but highly concentrated deposits of mercury and sulfur, another clue to the origin of the painting that fits into the materials used in early American art.

For McGrady, this type of work exemplifies the kind of cross-departmental collaboration that represents the future of the museum, while also demonstrating Davis’ drive and talent on the cutting edge of her chosen field.

“Through this project, I’m really able to take everything I’ve learned and figure out how to apply science to answer real-world questions” —Maggie Davis

“She’s using approaches that art historians and conservators would use in tandem; art historians often don’t have scientific expertise, while scientists often lack a high level of art expertise—and Maggie is doing both,” McGrady said. “She is doing the kinds of things right now that very few students in art history have the chance to do, and is laying the foundation for what she can go on to do as a conservator.”

While some mysteries behind the man in red remain unanswered, the Palmer Museum now has a better understanding of where the portrait of Dr. John Carson fits into their collection, and into the American artistic tradition.

The Art of Discovery Booth

To learn more about these researchers and their projects, visit Penn State’s Art of Discovery Booth at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. The booth—which is open from Thursday, July 12, through Saturday, July 14, and located next to Willard Building and the obelisk—offers hands-on activities and demonstrations from Penn State researchers who are bridging the gap between art and science. Read the official Penn State News article about the booth for more information on presentations and schedule times.