Notes from the Field

In February, cSw Associate Chief Editor Yihan Wu attended the annual American Junior Academy of Science (AJAS) conference as a delegate for the New Jersey Academy of Science. Students from around the country gathered in Boston, Massachusetts for what Yihan has described as “the most exciting research experience I’ve ever been part of.” She recognized many themes echoed in the messages behind Curious Science Writers and shares some of that experience below.

“What are all of your research projects about?” asked Dr. Stephen Wolfram, a somewhat chubby man dressed in a plaid shirt and worn-out red sneakers, as he came into the conference room at the Hilton. While our small group went around the circle, I was trying to find the right words in my mind. Would he be indifferent to my biology topic? How could I explain plant hormones and tropism adequately to a mathematician? As my turn came and he patiently listened to my project, Dr. Wolfram replied, “that’s interesting, I did research in plant hormones in the past.” Then, he discussed music theory, astrophysics, biofuels, generators…

Dr. Wolfram is a world-renowned computer scientist, mathematician and physicist; Now, in addition to his inventions and discoveries, he develops sophisticated mathematical computing tools to make knowledge accessible to everyone. Unlike many other specialized scientists, he appreciates the liberal arts as he has an integrated understanding of all areas of study. While discussing the humanities side of the world, Dr. Wolfram said that the computational sciences reconcile with the humanities the same way photography and painting correlate. “Painting is like having an artist’s colored lenses over photography.”

Dr. Wolfram then showed us his masterpiece in Mathematica, which is featured in the center of his website. By iterating over a simple formula, he generated high intricate patterns, comparable to works by professional graphic designers. “That’s why this is my favorite code,” he said proudly. It was the first time I found aesthetics in computer languages — by looking through Dr. Wolfram’s “colored lenses.”

The next day on the Harvard University tour, Dr. Logan McCarthy, a physics professor, echoed Dr. Wolfram’s ideas. “Here’s a simple metaphor,” Dr. McCarthy drew a rectangle on the blackboard. “We believe that students should have a wealth of knowledge and skills like a tabletop, flat and spreading in all areas. Yet to support the table, students need in-depth technical knowledge that extends way below the surface just like the legs of a table.” Dr. McCarthy added legs to his table. “These are the pillars of one’s education and the basis for a career.”

I used to think that scientists only need to be specialized and analytical. They can become immune to the passion and spirit that artists possess. AJAS was a journey where I was able to see the correlation between science and art, which not only at many levels are interconnected, but also complement one another.

Scientists find creative new platforms, which incorporate the tools of an artist to communicate research. They make science more exciting and understandable by illustrating a complicated research project. One of the student researchers shared inspirational anecdotes of her Native American heritage and a nearby chemically contaminated land as the springboard for her project. Her science flew seamlessly from her passion and intrigue of the natural world.

As I walked through aisles of brightly colored posters, screaming for attention, each student focused on a different topic: fiber optics, cancer, nematode development… Indeed, although I was no expert in any of the topics, the subject of the research wasn’t the most important, but the experience of it all. “The excitement of communicating science translates in the way we speak, and our work. It’s one of the most wonderful things in the world of science, being able to interact, share your work, new ideas and be proud of it.”

During the last night in Boston, on the way back to hotel through the Prudential Center, my friends and I almost ran into a man standing alone waiting for the elevator. He was wearing a plaid shirt with red sneakers. He smiled at us and waved, “Hi guys. Good night.”