Artists and scientists in today’s world often exist in their own disciplinary silos. But the Laboratory Art in Practice Bass Connections team hopes to rewrite this narrative, by engaging Duke students from a range of disciplines in a 2-semester series of courses designed to join “the artist studio, the humanities seminar room, and the science lab bench.” Their work culminated in “re:process” – an exhibition of student artwork on Friday, April 28, in the lobby of the French Family Science Center. Rather than science simply engaging artistic practice for the sake of science, or vice versa, the purpose of these projects was to offer an alternate reality where “art and science meet as equals.”
Liuren Yin, a junior double-majoring in Computer Science and Visual and Media Studies, developed an art project to focus on the experience of prosopagnosia, or face blindness. Individuals with this condition are unable to tell two distinct faces apart, including their own, often relying on body language, clothing, and the sound of a person’s voice to determine the identity of a person. Using her experience in computer science, she developed an algorithm that inputs distinct faces and outputs the way that these faces are perceived by someone who has prosopagnosia.
Next to the computer and screen flashing between indistinguishable faces, she’s propped up a mirror for passers-by to look at themselves and contemplate the questions that inspired her to create this piece. Yin says that as she learned about prosopagnosia, where every face looks the same, she found herself wondering, “how am I different from a person that looks like me?” Interrogating the link between our physical appearance and our identity is at the root of Yin’s piece. Especially in an era where much of our identity exists online and appearance can be curated any way one wants, Yin considers this artistic piece especially timely. She writes in her program note that “my exposure to technologies such as artificial intelligence, generative algorithms, and augmented reality makes me think about the combination and conflict between human identity and these futuristic concepts.”
Eliza Henne, a junior majoring in Art History with a concentration in Museum Theory and Practice, focused more on the biological world in her project, which used a lavender plant in different forms to ask questions like “what is truthful, and what do we consider real?” By displaying a live plant, an illustration of a plant, and pressings from a plant, she invites viewers to consider how every rendition of a commonly used model organism in scientific experiments omits some information about the reality of the organism.
For example, lavender pressings have materiality, but there’s no scent or dimension to the plant. A detailed illustration is able to capture even the way light illuminates the thin veins of the leaf, but is merely an illustration of a live being. The plant itself, which is conventionally real, can only further be seen in this sort of illustrative detail under a microscope or in a diagram.
In walking through the lobby of FFSC, where these projects and more are displayed, you’re surrounded by conventionally scientific materials, like circuit boards, wires, and petri dishes, which, in an unusual turn of events are being used for seemingly unscientific endeavors. These endeavors – illustrating the range of human emotion, showcasing behavioral patterns like overconsumption, or demonstrating the imperfection inherent to life – might at first glance feel more appropriate in an art museum or a performing arts stage.
But the students and faculty involved in this exhibition see that as the point. Maybe it isn’t so unnatural to build a bridge between the arts and the sciences – maybe, they are simply two sides of the same coin.
There are many ways to think of North Carolina. It was the 12th U.S. state to enter the Union. It is bordered by Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina. North Carolina’s capital city is Raleigh, and it has an estimated population of 10,698,973. These are all facts, but they tell only part of the story: the human side of it.
Naturalist Tom Earnhardt offers other ways to view North Carolina: the state contains the oldest forest in the eastern United States, with trees up to 2,700 years old. It has 17 river basins, and some of its rivers show evidence of fishing weirs used by indigenous tribes hundreds of years ago. And from the Atlantic coast in the east to the Appalachian mountains in the west, North Carolina is home to thousands of native plants, animals, and fungi. There are 3,000 species of moths alone in North Carolina, and “Every one is essential; not one is optional.”
“North Carolina,” Earnhardt says, “is still one of the most biodiverse and extraordinary places on the planet.”
Earnhardt is a naturalist, photographer, writer, and attorney. He wrote and produced the show “Exploring North Carolina,” a series of dozens of episodes about North Carolina’s biodiversity, geography, and history. Earnhardt recently visited Duke to speak at the Nasher Museum of Art.
One inspiration for his talk was the ongoing Nasher exhibit “Spirit in the Land,” an exploration of ecology, culture, and connection to the natural world. “Art in its many forms,” Earnhardt says, “tells a story of love, loss, and renewal.”
Earnhardt has spent much of his career balancing caution and hope. We are facing environmental crises, including climate change and biodiversity loss. Earnhardt believes it’s important for people to know that, but he has put a lot of thought into how to get that message across. Earnhardt has learned that it can help to “tell it as though it was your best friend or brother who needed to hear an important story.” Science alone isn’t always enough. “To hear bad news of any kind is not easy,” Earnhardt says, “and people want to hear it from people they know, people they trust or can relate to.”
The stories he tells aren’t always easy to hear, but they are important. We need to know — whether on a local, state, national, or international scale — what exactly we stand to lose if we continue on a path of environmental destruction. Many species are becoming more scarce, Earnhardt says, “but we still have them.” They can’t be protected once they’re gone, but many of them are still here and can still be preserved. The goal for all of us should be to keep it that way.
North Carolina, Earnhardt says, is at “the epicenter of the temperate world.” The state has a range of climates and habitats. It marks the northernmost native range of the American alligator, while coniferous forests in the North Carolina mountains resemble boreal forests of the northern U.S. and Canada. North Carolina, according to Earnhardt, contains “whole ecosystems that other states only dream about.”
Eastern North Carolina is characterized by beaches, salt marshes, and other coastal ecosystems. Here you can find “wildflowers that grow in salty sand” and painted buntings, multicolored songbirds unlike any other in North America. On four occasions, he’s even seen manatees in North Carolina.
“Travelers from around the world vacation here and raise their families in the summer,” Earnhardt says—and he’s not talking about humans. Many shorebirds and sea turtles lay their eggs on North Carolina’s beaches. Human disturbance, including artificial lighting and crowded beaches, can put their babies in danger. Minimizing light pollution near beaches, especially during turtle nesting season, and staying away from nesting shorebirds can help.
Moving farther west, we can find savannas of grasses and pine trees. “You drive past this, and people go, ‘ho hum, a pine barren.’” To that Earnhardt says, “Look a little closer.”
These pine barrens are home to some of North Carolina’s 80 species of orchid, like the white-fringed and yellow-fringed orchids. “Look at them from all angles,” Earnhardt urges, “because from up above it becomes a sunburst… for those who watch.”
Be one of those who watches.
North Carolina rivers, forests, and swamps are also home to many wildlife species. Forests around Black River contain “huge buttresses of tupelo that hold the world together” and bald cypresses that have been alive for 2,700 years. The early years of these now-ancient cypress trees coincided with the fall of the Assyrian Empire and the establishment of the first emperor of Japan. Many centuries later, they are the oldest trees in eastern North America.
They are also in danger. “If seas rise three feet,” Earnhardt says, “there will be enough pressure to flood these [trees]…. We could lose them.” But “they are worth saving.”
Still farther west are the Appalachian mountains, another biodiversity hotspot. North Carolina is home to 60 species of salamanders, many of which live in the mountains. The southern Appalachians and western North Carolina contain more salamander diversity than anywhere else on the planet. One species that lives here is the American hellbender, a two-foot-long denizen of mountainous streams.
Despite increasing human development, North Carolina is still rich in flora and fauna. “We have wild places,” Earnhardt says. North Carolina has more than 450 bird species, over 30 native pitcher plants, 20 freshwater turtles, and 38 snakes—“and they’re all good neighbors,” Earnhardt adds.
North Carolina has pink and yellow lady slippers and ten-foot-tall Turk’s Cap lilies; crayfish and thousands of mushrooms; native azaleas and insects that depend on them. It has Earnhardt’s “new favorite bird,” the swallow-tailed kite, and vultures, “the clean-up crew: not optional.” That’s a refrain throughout Earnhardt’s talk. “Nothing I’ve shown you tonight is optional,” he says.
“Both in banking and nature,” Earnhardt says, “when we make too many withdrawals and not enough deposits… there’s a deficit.” There are too many creatures we have already lost. The eastern cougar. The Carolina parakeet. The passenger pigeon. Too many more. There are still others that are threatened or endangered but not yet gone. “We humans tend to forget the failures and close calls,” Earnhardt says. While talking about biodiversity loss, he references a quote by biologist E.O. Wilson: “This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us.”
So what can be done? To preserve biodiversity, we have to consider entire ecosystems, not just one endangered animal at a time. “We are part of the natural world, part of links and chains and pyramids,” Earnhardt says, and humans too often forget that. Everything is connected.
He recalls visiting entomologist Bill Reynolds’s lab and noticing crickets hopping across the floor. “Don’t step on the transmission fluid!” Reynolds warned. He was referring to the crickets and to insects more broadly. Like transmission fluid in cars, insects are essential to making sure the systems they are part of run smoothly. Insects serve crucial roles in food webs, pollination, and decomposition. Studies show that they are declining at alarming rates.
“We are at a crossroads,” Earnhardt says. “Our transmission fluid is low, and we have made too many withdrawals from the bank of biodiversity.” Still, he emphasizes the importance of not giving up on wildlife conservation. Given a chance, nature can and will regenerate.
Despite all our past and current failures, conservation also has remarkable success stories. The brown pelican is one North Carolina resident that almost went extinct but has since “come back in incredible numbers.” The bald eagle is another. Its population plummeted in the 20th century, largely due to the insecticide DDT as well as habitat loss and hunting. By 2007, though, after intensive conservation efforts, it had rebounded enough to be removed from the endangered species list. Until about 1980, Earnhardt had never seen a bald eagle in North Carolina. Today, Earnhardt says, “I see them in every county.”
“Everyone’s going to have to fly in the same direction,” to preserve North Carolina — not to mention the rest of the world — at its best and wildest, Earnhardt says. But individual actions can make a difference. He suggests planting native flowers like milkweed and coneflower, both of which are good food sources for pollinators. And if you choose to plant ornamentals like crepe myrtle, “Treat that as a piece of art in the yard and then plant the rest as native.”
Lady Bird Johnson, a former first lady and conservation advocate, once said that “Texas should look like Texas, and Mississippi like Mississippi.” Choosing native plants can be a powerful way to help native wildlife in your own yard. “If you plant it,” Earnhardt says, “they will come.”
One audience member asks, “How do you recommend that we recruit non-believers?” It’s a conundrum that Earnhardt has put a lot of thought into. “It takes time, and it takes patience,” he says. “Some of my best friends are not full believers, but I work on them every day.”
The Kenan Institute of Ethics recently held a conversation to discuss exactly that issue. The discussion was moderated by Jesse Summers, Ph.D., and featured speakers Erich Hatala Matthes, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wellesley College and author of “Drawing the Line: what to do with the work of immoral artists from museums to the movies,” and Tom Rankin, Professor of the Practice of Art and Documentary Studies and Director of the MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts at Duke University.
Matthes believes that in some cases, “to not engage with the moral dimensions of a work would be to not take the work seriously.” He thinks Shakespeare’s works belong in this category. “Trickier cases,” he adds, “might come from works that aren’t explicitly engaged” with morality, but even in those cases, “the moral life of the artist can actually become a lens through which to read aspects of the work.”
We already consider context when viewing art, not just “formal features of the work.” What was the artist responding to? What were the politics at the time? Matthes believes it makes sense to consider the “moral life” of the artist, too. That “doesn’t mean the artist’s moral life is always going to be relevant” to engaging with the art, but he thinks it’s worth at least acknowledging.
According to Rankin, “When we look at a piece of art or hear something, what we hope is that it propels us” to consider moral issues. How, he asks, can we not look at a painting or photo and wonder, “Where did this come from? Who made it? What was their agenda? What is their point of view? What was their background?”
So where does that leave us, Rankin asks, when it comes to “work that was made a hundred years ago but is really powerful… and yet when we look at it a hundred years later it has all kinds of flaws?” Should museums remove paintings by famous artists if racist or sexist views come to light? Should individuals boycott books, songs, and video games created (or inspired) by artists who have made harmful statements toward individuals or groups of people? How should college classes address works by immoral artists?
Matthes says the term “immoral artists” in his book is intentionally provocative. “I don’t actually think it’s productive” to think of people as good or bad, moral or immoral, he says. “There’s a huge range” in the morality or lack thereof in artists’ actions, and Matthes believes there should also be a range in our responses, but he doesn’t believe that “great art can ever just excuse immorality.” He wants to reject the idea that “artists need to be a little inhuman” and “outside the norms of society.” He thinks that mindset encourages us to think of artists as not subject to the same rules. They should not be “immune to moral criticism,” he says.
Rankin agrees: “I do balk a little bit at having to be the one to decide who’s bad and who’s good,” but at the same time, he believes that “artists make work in response to who they are.” So “What do we confront first? The life of the artist or the work itself? It’s not one or the other,” he says.
Both speakers believe that context is often key to interpreting and evaluating art. Matthes says that it might be “really obscene” to choose Michael Jackson music at your wedding if you know one of your guests has experienced child abuse, given the child sexual assault allegations against Jackson. However, Matthes doesn’t believe that completely “cancelling” Jackson’s music is the solution, either.
Similarly, Matthes doesn’t believe that “we should necessarily continue with big exhibitions honoring Paul Gauguin,” a painter who had sexual relationships with young girls and employed racist terminology. According to Matthes, Gauguin “represents a paternalistic energy of a particular time” that we should “interrogate.” As for the notion that we should extend a degree of lenience to historical artists and view them as a product of their times, Matthes is “disinclined” to think of morality as relative to time period. The time when a work of art was created might affect how we engage with it or assign blame, but “Gauguin did a lot of morally horrific things, and the fact that it was in a different time and place doesn’t change that.”
Nevertheless, Matthes thinks we can and should still engage with and respond to the work of “immoral artists.” His concern, he says, is that taking art off of walls and bookshelves and not talking about it “isn’t reckoning with the legacy.” He also doesn’t “see a reason to put certain types of art on a pedestal and treat them differently…. Artistic expression is a fundamental part of human life.”
What if an individual doesn’t want to engage with such art at all? What if the actions of an artist, dead or alive, are so objectionable to someone that they want nothing to do with it? Matthes is okay with that attitude, though he does think it’s “missing an opportunity.”
Completely disengaging from art on account of its creator’s moral life “feels like a way of not taking the moral criticism seriously,” Matthes says. “It’s not something you would be wrong to fail to do,” but he believes in engaging with moral issues, even those that “it would be easier to just ignore.”
But he acknowledges that personal identities can play a role in how or whether we engage with the work of immoral artists. Matthes believes it’s important to consider “the position you’re coming from” when you read or think about these issues. On the other hand, people and groups who may be more directly impacted by an artist’s problematic views “also have really thoughtful, nuanced ways” of engaging—or not engaging—with the art.
Matthes believes that “we have a lot of moral latitude when it comes to our individual engagement” with art. He finds it difficult to make the argument that reading, listening to, or viewing art in your own home is directly harmful to others, even if the artist in question is still alive.
Summers, meanwhile, points out that if someone is upset by an artist, there could be cases where “you’re taking it out on your friends… when you should be taking it out on the band.”
Institutions like universities, however, might need to take further considerations. “Different moral norms might apply,” Matthes suggests, “based on the positions of power we occupy.” Classrooms, for instance, are a “semi-public” space. They can help provide context in conversations about “morally problematic art” and encourage people to “think really carefully and critically.” If a class is going to engage with such topics, though, Matthes thinks it’s important to spell that out to students beforehand.
Powerful conversations can take place outside of classrooms, too — in book clubs and even informal conversations with friends. “You don’t want to let the moral concerns completely drive the bus” when engaging with art, Matthes says, “but I think it’s important not to ignore them.”
Rankin concludes by reminding us that it isn’t just artists who face decisions about how to respond to the world. For instance, even among those who don’t think of themselves as photographers, anyone who carries a cell phone is making choices every time they take a photo — about what they’re presenting and why.
Su, a mathematician and professor at Harvey Mudd College, displayed “Hope,” an 1886 painting by George Frederic Watts. He asked the audience to look at it, really look at it, and think about what’s happening in the painting. At first glance, it shows a blindfolded woman holding a wooden object. She seems to be in pain. But the more time we spend looking, the more we notice. We might notice that there’s a single star above her. We might notice that the wooden object is a lyre with only one string left attached. We might notice, too, that the woman is plucking that final string and straining to hear its music.
If we take the time to explore the history of the painting, we might learn that Martin Luther King, Jr., talked about the same painting in a sermon. Su quoted a line from that sermon: “Who has not had to face the agony of blasted hopes and shattered dreams?” We find beauty in art, and often we find it relatable as well. Art invites us to look closer, to wonder, to feel, to ask questions, to imagine.
“Why,” Su asks then, “don’t we approach mathematics the way that we approach art?”
Whether we consider ourselves “math people” or not, we rarely if ever hear mathematics discussed as an affirmation of human virtues and desires—love, beauty, truth, the “expectation of enchantment.” Su wants to change that. In his book “Mathematics for Human Flourishing” and in his talk at Duke, he envisions mathematics as beautiful, inclusive, and accessible to anyone.
Along with the painting “Hope,” Su’s first slide shows a quote by Simone Weil: “Every being cries out silently to be read differently.” Simone Weil, according to Su, was a “French religious mystic” and “widely revered philosopher,” but she also had a deep interest in math. Her older brother, André Weil, was an influential mathematician whose mathematical achievements often overshadowed her own. In a letter to a friend published posthumously in the book “Waiting for God,” Simone Weil wrote: “I did not mind having no visible successes, but what did grieve me was the idea of being excluded from that transcendent kingdom to which only the truly great have access and wherein truth abides.” Su sometimes wonders how Simone’s relationship to mathematics would have been different if André had not been her brother. Again, “Every being cries out silently to be read differently.” According to Su, when Simone Weil speaks of “reading” someone, she means “to interpret or make a judgment about them.”
Su has a friend, Christopher Jackson, who is an inmate in a high-security prison, serving a thirty-two year sentence for involvement in armed robberies as a teenager. When you think about people who do math, Su asks, would you think of Chris? “We create societal norms about who does math,” and Chris doesn’t fit those norms. And yet he has been studying mathematics for years. After studying algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus while in prison, he sent a letter to Su requesting help in furthering his mathematics education. The two men still correspond regularly, and Chris is now studying topology and other branches of mathematics.
“Every being cries out silently to be read differently.”
Why do math in the first place? Just as you can take your car to a mechanic without fully understanding how it works yourself, we might think of math as “only for the elite few” or perhaps as “a means to an end,” a tool “to make you ‘college and career ready.’” Su sees it differently. He views math in terms of human flourishing, “a wholeness of being and doing.” He points to three words from other languages: eudaemonia, a Greek term for “the overarching good in life”; shalom, a Hebrew word often used as a greeting and roughly translated as “peace”; and salaam, an Arabic word with a similar meaning to shalom.
“What attracts me to music,” Su says, “isn’t playing scales over and over again.” But once you “experience a symphony,” you might see the value in playing scales. Can we learn to think of math the same way? Here, Su quoted mathematician Olga Taussky-Todd: “The yearning for and the satisfaction gained from mathematical insight brings the subject near to art.”
Beauty and awe probably aren’t the first words that come to mind when most of us think of math, but Su believes math can unlock “transcendent beauty.” He references a quote by C.S. Lewis: “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” That is what math at its best can do for us. It can help us see the big picture and realize that we’re “just scratching the surface of something really profound.”
“Math is not a single ‘ability,’” Su says. “In reality, math is a multi-dimensional set of virtues.” When learning or teaching math, we often focus more on skills like recalling facts and algorithms, factoring polynomials, or taking a derivative. But Su believes more important lessons are at play: virtues like persistence, creativity, a thirst for deep knowledge, and what he calls the expectation of enchantment. And, he says, employers are often much more interested in virtues than in skills. “If you want to be really practical about this—and I don’t, with mathematics, but if you do—then it’s actually the virtues that are more important than the skills,” Su says.
One basic human desire that Su believes math can help fulfill is the desire for truth, which, in turn, can help build virtues like a thirst for deep knowledge and the ability to think for oneself, which can help us figure out what’s true instead of just blindly trusting authorities. “Truth is under attack,” Su says. “Misinformation is everywhere.” Su wants to teach his students “to think, to be ‘that person who doesn’t need to look at the Ikea instructions.’” But he also wants them to view math as more than just a means to an end. “It’s my responsibility to help my students remember the beauty” in math and to understand that their dignity as human beings isn’t dependent on their grades.
Along with truth and beauty, he believes math can and should bring opportunities for exploration and discovery. “My role isn’t to be a teacher,” he says. “My role is to be a co-explorer.” He recalls his own excitement when he first saw a Menger cube, or Menger sponge, cut along its diagonal. The resulting cross-section is beautiful and, yes, enchanting. “What would it look like for classrooms to be like that?” During the pandemic, Su started adding more reflection-focused questions to his exams, questions like “Consider one mathematical idea from the course that you have found beautiful, and explain why it is beautiful to you.” Even more traditional math questions can be phrased in an “exploratory” way. Su gives the example of a question that asks students to make two rectangles, one with a bigger perimeter and one with a bigger area.
Another desire or virtue important in the field of mathematics is justice. Su wants math to be accessible to all, but not everyone has had positive experiences with math or feels like they belong there. As an analogy, Su talks about receiving dishes from a “secret menu” when visiting certain Chinese restaurants with friends who are fluent in Chinese. When he goes there on his own and requests the “secret menu,” however, he is sometimes turned away or told that he wouldn’t like those dishes. “Are people side-by-side in the same restaurant having different experiences” in math, too? “Who are you to say they do or don’t belong in mathematics?”
Even Su himself hasn’t always had wholly positive experiences in math. One of his professors once told him he didn’t “have what it takes to become a successful mathematician,” and he almost quit his Ph.D. program. Instead, he switched to a different advisor who had encouraged him to stick with it. Meanwhile, he surrounded himself with people who could remind him why he loved math. Math as a field can be competitive, but “if you think of mathematics as human flourishing… then that’s not a zero-sum game anymore.”
In Su’s words, “we’re all math teachers” because “we all pass on attitudes about math to others.” He says studies show that parents can pass on “math anxiety” to their kids. But Su encourages people to “believe that you and everyone can flourish in mathematics.” Simone Weil. Christopher Jackson. And you.
How does parenting change when infant and child mortality affects every family in society? Recent history may provide an answer. For the entirety of the 19th Century, child mortality was ubiquitous. In the year 1880, nearly 35% of children born in the United States passed away in their first five years. The medical literature that explores the common diseases and public health inadequacies, though expansive, often fails to address the central humanistic questions surrounding such widespread death. How were these children mourned? How did grieving families move on? And how has this mourning changed in the context of the past hundred years of medical advancement?
Throughout the lecture, Klass guided the audience through famous portraits, poems, and prose produced in the 18th Century that memorialized children who had died at a young age. Perhaps the most famous fictional account of childhood death in the 19th century emerged in Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The emotionally wrenching death scene of young Eva, who succumbed to tuberculosis, struck a chord with virtually all those who read the novel. Published in 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin would go on to be reproduced in theaters across the country for several decades, the death scene becoming a ubiquitous anchor that often brought the audience to tears. Klass further described how Beecher Stowe drew from her personal experience, the death of her son Charlie from cholera only a few years prior to the writing of the book, to create this powerful literary scene.
Beecher Stowe was not the only author whose personal experience impacted their art. Charles Dickens, deeply impacted by the death of his children, had created a slew of sentimental yet mortal child characters in his stories. One of the most prominent examples, young Nell from “The Old Curiosity Shop,” was published in installments and developed a strong following. Dickens ended the series with the death of twelve-year old Nell, much to the outrage of international readers.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that parents chose to memorialize their deceased children through literature and art. Wealthy families would often contract famous portrait artists were often contracted to depict their dead children. Some, including the Rockefellers and the Stanfords, channeled the deaths of their children and grandchildren into resourced academic institutions.
For grief to drive philanthropy and art is not a new phenomenon, but the sources of grief that drive such artistic and financial overtures today have changed considerably. Klass sought to bridge this knowledge gap and pull closer the history to which society has the privilege of being oblivious. Maybe, even, it would even inform how we cope with the mortality of young people today.
“How do we situate ourselves in a world where infant and child mortality is so low?” Klass asked at the beginning of her presentation.
The past does not reveal one clear answer, but it does provide a tapestry of options, many lost in our modern collective memory, for mourning, for celebrating, and for memorializing.
This is part one of a two-part series; next week we will dive into the nitty-gritty of biblical research, but for now, we’re focusing on what biblical research is and why it matters.
To the uninitiated, “biblical research” might not conjure up images of dancing, or analyzing films, or studying engineering. But meet Maximillion Whelan. A third-year M.Div. student at Duke, Whelan runs a website for film aficionados focusing on analyzing movie scenes and was recently published in Quarterly Review of Film and Video for an article on theology and film. He notes: “Biblical research sheds light on how everyday activities effectively shape history and are also shaped by history. By “zooming in,” delving into the details and contexts, biblical research enables us to simultaneously “zoom out” – to see what things we are taking for granted, where our readings have led us, and how we take our readings into other spheres of life.”
Or take Divinity School student Nicole Kallson. She is pursuing a Master’s of Theological Studies with a Certificate in Theology and the Arts.
“As a theologian and dancer, I use my background in dance to assist my understanding of the Bible.” Kallson explains. “I tend to focus on ideas of embodiment, beauty, and inter- and intra- personal relationships.”
Both students—along with countless other Blue Devils and other mascot identities—use their studies as a lens through which to examine themselves and their passions. And isn’t that what we emphasize so clearly at Duke—the interdisciplinary, interpersonal, interfaith, international, interwoven identities of people, places, and things? Is that not what research is all about in the end? Perhaps the purpose of biblical research is not as foreign to us as we may think at first.
Degree-seekers may come from expertise in literature, classical studies, practical faith, or other backgrounds that may easily come to mind. But they also come from natural sciences, physical sciences, political science, art and media studies, creative writing, engineering, medicine, sociology, public policy, economics, and so much more. And each of these students is applying their research and understanding of the Bible to their understanding of the world at large, seeking to become better, more intentional academics in the process.
The new Dean of Duke Divinity School was born and raised in Puerto Rico; he has prayed with Pope Francis and presented him with writings on interfaith dialogues. He also has Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in mechanical engineering.
“It might seem odd to have a series focused on the Bible as a banned book, given that it’s the most polished book in history,” he opened. He gave an example further; for a time in recent Guatemalan history, possession of the Bible was persecuted as a means of targeting perceived Communist empathizers. Even within Christain communities, he explains, there has been discourse among devotees of certain translations and versions—not all of them amenable.
The event also featured Brent Strawn of the Duke Divinity School and Jennifer Knust from Trinity College of Arts & Sciences Department of Religious Studies.
“The survival of the New Testament as a text and a collection is a theological and practical achievement,” noted Knust. “It is repeatedly refreshed in response to new circumstances, even as remains of past approaches continue to shape what can happen next.”
It is because of the differing opinions of so many people over such a long time that we have different faiths, and biblical research uses the lens of Christianity to evaluate that phenomenon.
Knust continues: “Today we know that there are over 5,000 manuscript copies of the New Testament, none of which are identical in every particular.”
She herself was a member of the board of the New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition—the most recent scholarly translation of the Bible, published in 2021. She elaborated on her feelings on the dynamics and fluidity of the text, describing a constant push and pull of desire and tradition. Perhaps researchers, in the present, past, or future, may desire to change words, meanings, or uses of the Bible, but they are contradicted by a tradition dictated by the populous.
Biblical research seeks to answer questions about the Bible— and by extension, the fruitfulness of humanity. The sustainability of religious texts of all kinds is a testament (pun intended) to the success of human minds compounded over thousands of years.
On this PeopleMover-style tour of biblical research, I hope we’ve taken away some key points:
Firstly, the work of many biblical researchers is deeply personal. We’ve discovered through this that the work of any researcher in any field has the potential to be deeply personal.
Additionally, we learned that the interdisciplinary reach of biblical studies works inversely; students may turn to biblical research from other subjects to enhance their work, or they may even turn to other subjects to enhance their work in biblical research.
And finally, we arrive at our destination; next week we’ll talk more in-depth about what biblical research entails and meet some key players in those conversations.
When I write about myself, it always reads like a poorly crafted match.com zinger. Boring, awkward, and something along the lines of:
I’m Alex. Aquarius. Love dogs, classic rock, old NCIS episodes. $1 Goodwill paperback thrillers, marked with “Happiest 53rd Richard! All my love, Janet” and “8/17/2005, Saw this and thought of you!” And I like to ask myself why Steven King’s Carrie conjures up thoughts of said person? Who’s Richard? How’s Janet?
I also love coffee. And tea. Peppermint, of course. Irish breakfast, sure. Chamomile, why not. But I think I really just like collecting mugs — hearty ceramics, dainty porcelain, hand-painted, non-dishwashable, chipped, stained monstrosities. It might be a problem though (as I don’t have much shelf space).
Favorite genre of film? It’s got to be anything in the Meg Ryan romcom cinematic universe. Or the Brat Pack coming-of-age cannon. Breakfast Club, St. Elmo’s Fire, About Last Night, Pretty in Pink. Really just the Judd Nelson je ne sais quoi.
I think my 2nd grade superlative was “Wormiest Bookworm,” whatever that means. That might’ve been the year I read every Nancy Drew book in the library and founded the neighborhood’s first and only detective business. I do wish I could say I’ve Jules Verne’d the world in 80 days — circumnavigating all five nebulous oceans, frozen Arctic plains, Swiss peaks, and continental slopes; Phileas Fogging my way through the Mediterranean, aperitivo in hand. But I’m a bit unworldly in the geographic sense. I’ve only been out of the country once to boat up next to Niagara Falls, wearing a thin, plastic poncho and an I <3 Canada tee (though I’ve possibly made it a second time to Canada after getting lost on the circumference of a lake in Vermont).
I’ve only ever lived in Charleston, SC, never straying too far from its labyrinth of intercostals and waterways, its Theseus-like shrimpers, gliding into port. At Duke, I spend half my time majoring in molecular/cellular biology and the other lamenting my landlockedness, missing Charleston’s temperate sea breeze.
Growing up there was all briny inlet and Waffle House, midnight bacon, butter pats, cordgrass, molting blue crab, churches on every street corner and in every denomination, weak coffee and greasy hash brown breakfast, September hurricanes, salt, cicadas, farm stands packed with peaches, a once-in-a-hundred year 6-inch snowfall that closed school for two weeks.
On Saturdays, I sharktooth-hunted with my sisters in pluff mud plots now developed (strangers tend to find the smell of the marsh pungent, but I think it’s character building). Fished for red drum. Searched for pearls in half-mooned oyster mouths. Kayaked down creeks.
Charleston’s a literary city, or so I’ve always heard. I think Edgar Allen Poe’s ghost haunts a cobble-stoned alley downtown or something like that. And if not an alley then a quaint B&B, its porch bearing creaky rocking chairs and purple coneflower. I went to an arts-specialized middle and high school for creative writing, wrote some bad poetry in my formative years and a couple of questionable short films, then went to college and somehow fell into the field of cell bio and now I spend a decent chunk of my free time researching genetic heart disease in a campus lab. Feeding cardiomyocytes via gentle pipette like they’re sea monkeys.
I like to picture the act of writing and that of science as similar — fraternal twins or first cousins — and I don’t think it a coincidence that early philosophers were our first physicians, mathematicians, physicists, chemists, etc. Both fields challenge us to pose questions about our world, about its inhabitants, its oddities, its nuances. We just go about answering them differently.
For this reason, I’m incredibly excited to join Duke’s Research Blog, to write about science and innovation, to poeticize protein structures or to search for lyricism in neuronal action potentials the way a deep sea troller searches for the elusive giant squid. I just think there’s something so wonderful about learning new things, cradling little curiosities that often lead nowhere, and doing so through an accessible, enjoyable medium.
It may be hard to put your finger on it, but Duke often allows students to connect their classes to something more personal.
The university’s emphasis on interdisciplinary education is a major initiative that colors students’ academic experiences. While there are many examples of these connections between people, classes, fields, and departments, few so tangibly represent those connections like The SCOPES Project, which connects arts and humanities to medical education at Duke.
Art and medicine can exist in entirely different worlds. They can appeal to different people and tell different stories. But why be simple when you can be, well… stunning? They can be integrated to form something powerful, and that’s precisely what SCOPES leadership members Isa DeLaura, Raluca Gosman, Mason Seely, David Stevens, and Lindsay Olson aimed to do.
“It is encouraging as an upperclassman who previously participated in this program to see rising students continue the tradition of incorporating the humanities into medical practice,” Mason Seeley says. The generational aspect of the project seems to contribute to its personality; participants bring their own perspectives to their work only to walk away with dozens more.
“Having a creative outlet has helped me process interactions with patients and the difficulties of the profession, and celebrate happy moments as well,” says Isa DeLaura.
“The goal is to give artists creative freedom to explore their relationships with their patients with whatever medium and in whatever style works best for them. As such, every year the feel is entirely based on the decisions of the artists.”
Isa DeLaura, MS3+
David Stevens insists that the artists “resist… forces of depersonalization in compelling and beautiful ways.”
The project is inspired and supported by yet another interdisciplinary Duke initiative called APPLE (Appreciating Patient Perspectives through Longitudinal Encounters), which connects medical students with patients living with chronic illnesses. The artists/medical students/empaths-in-training then attended multiple creative workshops and developed art pieces to reflect their patients’ personal experiences. But this year’s 6th annual SCOPES exhibition looks a bit different from past years’ (which are conveniently available online for your viewing pleasure).
Having attended many an art opening myself, I am unashamed to say that much of my enjoyment comes from the cheeseplates (and the excitement in the air, but that’s besides the point). Some exhibitions opt for a traditional charcuterie, some marked Kirkland Signature and others displayed on a handmade butcherblock. The point of fingerfoods is to encourage the attendees to stand up, walk around, and interact with the masses. But it also encourages attendees to “just stop by,” making the affair all the less intimate.
Following limitations on group gatherings Duke enforced during COVID, the SCOPES team decided to apply their newfangled interdisciplinary/revolutionary/innovative thinking to the art opening itself: They held a banquet.
“I loved the way this turned out,” says DeLaura. “It was very personal and made for great discussion and comradery.”
“SCOPES has provided an opportunity to reflect on my experiences as a first-year medical student while also exploring new ways to combine various art forms to create my vision,” says Taylor Yoder, who created Fences, Rivers, Walls, pictured above. “I hope to continue shooting film throughout my medical education and career.”
I was particularly (although wrongfully) surprised about the variety in the exhibit. While the artists attended the same workshops and worked with patients through the same program, they took radically different approaches to their creations. Esme Trahair, a second-year medical student, was a humanities major in undergrad. Her piece combines historical perspectives with modern (although antiquated) mechanisms, emphasizing “the importance of remembering and learning from historical, outdated medical teachings.”
The work features a variety of perspectives, but also some clear motifs that could be key takeaways for future medical providers. Like Yoder, artist Kreager Taber explores the patient’s value of “home.” Exploring these motifs could allow for more personal, “upstream” healthcare.
This year’s SCOPES exhibition is held in the Mars Gallery in the Duke University Hospital Concourse. It is an initiative of the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities & History of Medicine at the Duke University School of Medicine. It will be on display August 9-September 29, and available for viewing online at this link.
Her other topics were a liberal arts education in themselves: she wrote about invisible malaria, climate change, dance, drinking water standards, snow leopards, muscular dystrophy, cybercrime, autism and some fascinating classmates. This year, as she readied for her career, she wrote a three-part series about blockchain and bitcoins.
After graduating with a psychology major, an econ minor and an innovation and entrepreneurship certificate, Anna will be moving to Atlanta to work as an associate consultant at Bain and Company. She plans to continue learning about the web3 space in her “free time” and hopes to find an outlet to continue writing about cryptocurrency as well.
Cydney Livingston, the pride of Anson County, NC, joined us as a sophomore and proceeded to shoot out the lights with 31 career posts.
Cydney’s biggest hit, by far, was her first-person account of trying to continue with college after the pandemic shut down Spring Term, 2020. “Wednesdays, My New Favorite Day,” appealed to Duke alumni, family and friends everywhere who were wondering what the heck was going on in Durham. Short answer: It was weird.
Cydney is graduating with a BS in Biology and an AB II in History and is moving to Boston in the fall to begin work as an analyst with ClearView Healthcare Partners. But she is leaving open the possibility of a return to academia in history of science, technology and medicine, or science and technology studies. “I’m excited to spend a few years working and reflecting on my time at Duke and what lies ahead in my life journey.”
“If language shapes inequitable systems, then their disruption relies in part on our ability to effectively wield language in subversive ways”
Dr. Irène Mathieu, MD
Buried within a smattering of bullet points and data nuggets, these evocative words flashed across the slide deck of Dr. Irène Mathieu, MD. As Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Virginia School of Medicine and an award-winning poet, Mathieu thinks medical students could benefit from a stronger background in the humanities. Over the course of her guest lecture, “Playing Between the Lines: Poetry by a Pediatrician,” Mathieu dropped many such pieces of wisdom linking the study of language, and more broadly the humanities, with the practice of medicine. She shared this wisdom through a variety of methods, including original poetry, anecdotes from her life, and the latest research into the field of narrative medicine. The lecture was organized by the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities, and History of Medicine and hosted by Dr. Sneha Mantri, MD, MS, Assistant Professor of Neurology at Duke University School of Medicine.
The field of narrative medicine, hardly twenty years old, can trace its roots to Columbia University, when a group of physicians and scholars, spearheaded by Dr. Rita Charon, MD, PhD, sought to change the discourse surrounding traditional medical training. Emphasizing various humanities-based approaches, narrative medicine seeks to increase the propensity of physicians to perceive strife, uncertainty, and complexity in the pursuit of caring for complex illnesses. In her discussion, Mathieu cited multiple studies that detail the positive impact of an exposure to the humanities on the empathy, wisdom, tolerance for ambiguity, and resistance to burnout in medical students. More recent studies have shown that narrative medicine experimental training programs have similar impacts.
Like many of her contemporaries, Mathieu sees the utility in narrative medicine to impact not only the personal lives of physicians, but also the systems in which they interact. By approaching treatment through the lens of narrative medicine, she believes that physicians can better reimagine health systems into more equitable entities. In her pursuit of greater health equity, Mathieu identified two concepts that every physician should strive to possess: structural competency and critical consciousness. Structural competency, a term coined by her colleagues in an influential 2014 paper, proposes a model of patient engagement that goes beyond the realm of cultural awareness and further into understanding upstream, systemic issues such as zoning laws, food delivery systems, and health insurance. Critical consciousness, the ability to recognize the inherent contradictions and inequities within society, complements the structural competency framework. By consistently engaging in critical reading and reasoning, future physicians will be better able to reflect on the “power, privilege, and the inequities embedded within social relationships”.
While Mathieu recognized the power of narrative medicine, she also acknowledged how poetry has never had its proper place within the prose-heavy field. In her eyes, however, incorporating poetry into narrative medicine frameworks makes a lot of sense. For one, it allows a deeper level of vulnerability and dynamicity that literary fiction and theory cannot provide. More practically, however, poetry tends to err on the shorter side of literature (Mathieu calls them “multisensory micro-stories”), offering a less time-consuming alternative for busy medical students and residents.
For most of Mathieu’s life, her passion for poetry and medicine developed on parallel tracks. It wasn’t until her undergraduate years that she began to think of poetry more externally and started to seek out opportunities for publication. Around the same time, through her work in various global health initiatives, she witnessed the power words and policy can possess over the healthcare needs of entire populations. She identified a need for a humanities education, replete with poetry and theory and fiction, as critical to increasing equity within the healthcare system. When Mathieu assumed her latest role at UVA, on the eve of publishing her third poetry collection, the critically acclaimed Grand Marronage, she was given the opportunity to integrate her poetry within the university medical curriculum. Today, Mathieu has a secondary appointment as Assistant Director of the Program in Health Humanities at UVA’s Center for Health Humanities and Ethics. The parallel pathways of her life had converged.
As Mathieu revealed during her presentation, much of her poetry has little to do with her daily medical practice. Rather, she views poetry more along the lines of an escape. This escape takes the form of a critical reflection, by connecting the quotidian with themes of family and love, excess and presence. Mathieu’s poetry has the rare ability to walk readers through her complete narrative process, from the barest of sensory details to the ambiguities of emotion.
Perhaps there is no more fitting an ending to this article than an invitation to join Mathieu’s narrative world. After all, no amount of prose can substitute for a real poem. Below is a particularly striking excerpt of Mathieu’s artistry from the first stanza of her poem, “the forest fire of family trees”:
the problem is we don't know
that many ways of doing things
for instance, neither of us can
fry an egg without public radio
chattering in our ears, & there
are worse blueprints for a home,
like what my grandfather taught
my uncle. we think we know
people until we see the way
they eat a banana, totally unlike
how we peel and devour the fruit,
only instead of eating a banana
it's something way bigger,
like loving another person.