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Rethinking Science Through Art

Rethinking Science Through Art

Grad student Stephanie Muscat MFA 17 DM combines hands-on making skills with a lifelong love of science.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in Human Biology from Stanford University, Stephanie Muscat MFA 17 DM found that coming to RISD as a grad student in Digital + Media was like “entering a new world. The culture is so different,” she explains. “The feedback I would get on a research project at Stanford was pretty straightforward. Here everybody has lots of opinions about your work, and I get all sorts of ideas for future directions to take.”

Muscat first heard about RISD’s D+M program a couple of years ago when she met former grad students Alyson Ogasian MFA 15 DM and Xin Liu MFA 15 DM, who were conducting research in the San Francisco Bay Area. When they described the freedom they had to cross disciplines and make their own way, she realized that studying at RISD could be her opportunity to “pursue art and design interests in ways that would support my background in science.”

“Each piece of evidence [I discover] unlocks new roads to investigate, and I try to follow them all on my quest for a consolidated truth.”

Stephanie Muscat MFA 17 DM

Muscat has always been a visual thinker and, as she explains, she used graphics when taking notes during science classes at Stanford. She turned them into study guides that were really helpful for learning and remembering complex concepts. “I loved making them, and my friends really appreciated them as well,” she recalls. “That gave me some sense of how my work could benefit other people.”

After getting accepted to RISD, Muscat started by focusing on 3D modeling and “making things with my hands.” That soon prompted her to reexamine the scientific research practices that she’d always taken for granted. “I had never questioned the scientific process,” she explains. “It seemed pure, set in stone, uncomplicated by politics. Of course I realize now that that’s not actually the case. It’s important to challenge the tools and methods we use for data collection and think about how we can apply them in different contexts.”

In a project titled Brimfield Market, for example, Muscat reflects on her search for medical artifacts in the stalls of the massive Brimfield flea market in central Massachusetts. “I noticed that I have a tendency towards wild exploration versus systematic confirmation,” she writes. “Each piece of evidence unlocks new roads to investigate, and I try to follow them all on my wending quest for a consolidated truth…. Although we tend to think of science in terms of exploration, there’s an important distinction between exploratory and confirmatory studies in research.”

Working on an independent study project with Paul Badger, a senior critic in Sculpture, Muscat is currently thinking a lot about robotics and artificial intelligence. She appreciates the freedom to explore outside of Digital + Media and loves the hands-on learning elements of the project. “[D+M Department Head] Shona Kitchen is really good about creating a supportive but open-ended environment where we can have conversations about the work without feeling reined in,” she notes.

“It's fun to witness that ‘aha moment’ when students see how technology can be applied to their work.”

Beyond her studio work, Muscat is taking full advantage of a range of opportunities at RISD. She works as a monitor at Co-Works—a new, interdisciplinary making space—and as an imaging assistant in the Nature Lab, a hub for bringing art and science together at RISD. “It’s fun to witness that ‘aha moment’ when students see how technology can be applied to their work,” she notes. “It almost makes me want to consider teaching after graduate school.”

No matter which direction she decides to take, Muscat is sure that she’ll continue to explore “the spaces in between science and art” after RISD. “Ideally I’ll develop educational tools,” she says, “maybe exhibits for science museums like the Exploratorium [in San Francisco] or maybe open education software. But if you ask me again this time next year,” she adds with a laugh, “I’ll probably be planning something completely different.”

Simone Solondz / photos by Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH

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