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Science meets art at Stanford

Image credit: L.A. Cicero

Jan 30 2019

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By Taylor Kubota

Science and art are often regarded as distinct – either a person can’t be serious about both or an interest in one must relate somehow to work in the other. In reality, many scientists participate in and produce art at all levels and in every medium.

Here are just a few of these people – students and faculty – who study the sciences at Stanford University but also take part in the arts, both professionally and casually. From first-time dancers to life-long painters, these scientists give us a glimpse into the many ways science and art intersect.


Kalanit Grill-Spector, professor of psychology

Painting and drawing were always a part of Kalanit Grill-Spector’s childhood. But it wasn’t until college, when she was looking for a mental escape from her engineering classes, that she began taking formal art classes. “I really enjoyed the intellectual part of engineering but I needed a more creative outlet,” she said. She continued taking art classes throughout her undergraduate and graduate education.

With bold colors and thick lines, Grill-Spector paints vivid images of people, animals and scenes. She describes her art as expressionism. “I don’t try to be precise. It’s more emotional and helps my mind both wander and concentrate,” she said.

Grill-Spector was originally intent on becoming an engineer but found she was more interested in computations. She shifted her focus to computer vision, which then led her to neurobiology, where she ended up modeling the brain using her computer skills. Now, as a cognitive neuroscientist, professor of psychology and member of the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute at Stanford and Stanford Bio-X, she studies how visual recognition works. “I think I have a really good visual understanding of things, and that’s why I like painting and why I like studying vision,” she said.

Grill-Spector finds there is a clear relationship between understanding art and being able to communicate science effectively. “Having good visuals really helps convey ideas and information in a clear way – it’s a really good way to get people to understand your idea,” she explained. This is one of the reasons she incorporates an art project into the curriculum for her undergraduate class, Introduction to Perception. For their final assignment, students build or draw an illusion. Grill-Spector said she enjoys witnessing the creativity of her students and seeing how they relate art and science. “They’re both really creative processes,” she said.

By Kimberly Hickok