Lincoln, Neb. —Graduate students in the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship at Nebraska delved into art during the pandemic, transforming STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) into STEAM.
By the time the pandemic hit in 2020, nearly all NRT students in Nebraska hailed from other states. Often, they arrived knowing no one in Nebraska and never having seen the state. The pandemic then isolated them. One of the remaining ways they could connect more deeply with other students was through weekly Zoom meetings to collaborate on STEM projects. This time turned into a social lifeline for many NRT students, and some students went beyond the time and STEM with art.
Alison Ludwig, an agronomy master’s student from Ohio, said the transformation to STEAM started for her when Katharine Hogan, a doctoral student from Vermont, offered to teach others how to paint with watercolors.
Alison Ludwig studied the American burying beetle in her NRT research and painted it before moving on to landscapes like the desert watchtower over the Grand Canyon and White Sands in New Mexico.
“Due to the isolation of lockdown, I was interested in finding a new hobby to enrich my time while socially distancing,” Ludwig said. “Several other NRT students also were interested in learning watercolors, or just hanging out while doing their own crafts like acrylics, knitting or woodworking. Katharine had some formal training as an artist and she volunteered to get us some starting art supplies and to host tutorial sessions over Zoom.”
In her first paintings, Ludwig drew inspiration from national parks she had visited and her research subject, the American burying beetle.
“Painting my favorite beetle was a joy, and it set me on a path to paint other insects, such as the Io moth,” she said. “Skies can be difficult to paint, but I especially love sunsets.”
Rubi Quiñones, an NRT computer science student, also paints landscapes and started in 2020.
“I create art for my mental peace and creative outlet,” the native Texan said. “I have so much pressure from work, being a mom and daily tasks, that art is a great distraction from the outside world.”
In August 2021, she and Ludwig teamed up to display and sell their art in Porch-Art-Palooza, an art tour of Lincoln's historic Everett, Near South, and South Salt Creek neighborhoods.
While completing her NRT traineeship and a doctorate in computer science, Rubi Quiñones painted watercolors that she displayed at the Porch-Art-Palooza and in her home.
Prior to this, Quiñones had mostly given her art away or decorated her home with it, but the art tour gave her the chance to sell her art and hear what strangers thought of it.
“I did get this outstanding review from a stranger,” she said. “She was sincerely impressed with my art and it resonated with her deeply. She encouraged me to keep at it because I have something here.”
Annie Madsen, an NRT doctoral student in biological sciences, has drawn and painted since childhood but more recently homed in on oil painting.
“My partner and I started painting landscapes along with episodes of Bob Ross's old show on Netflix,” she said. “I produced something like 10 paintings over a few years--just something fun to do while spending time with my partner.”
She also took a scientific illustration course through the Department of Entomology to help her produce more accurate illustrations.
While Ludwig and Quiñones spoke more about exploring art as a stress reliever and way to stay centered, Madsen noted the rising importance of STEAM and how art can add to career marketability.
“Art is a great tool for science communications, and artistic ability is just a great skill to have in STEM,” she said. “It helps you approach problems creatively, and for drawing and painting especially, it helped me improve my powers of observation. I notice details differently after investing many hours to measure and draw museum specimens with high precision.”
Increasingly, artistic skills are important for computer scientists and engineers developing software, simulations, and other products and for all scientists and mathematicians producing diagrams and illustrations.
Leen-Kiat Soh, an NRT computer science professor, noted the value also of the creative thinking that goes into art. Five years ago, he and other STEM professors, a humanities professor and an art professor, Elizabeth Ingraham, formed a Computational Creativity team to develop classroom exercises stimulating both computational and creative thinking.
“The kind of creative thinking that inspires people to create art allows them to not only apply their existing knowledge and skills creatively but also engage in lifelong learning to broaden their ability to work in interdisciplinary environments on increasingly complex problems,” he said.
All three NRT students indicated art had gained a place in their lives, alongside learning. Madsen is working toward being a professor after graduating and said she would like to continue creating art even then.
“I hope I never stop,” she said.