Network Visualization program fuses science and art

Science and art are often perceived to be at opposite ends of the academic spectrum. But Danielle Bassett, a researcher at Penn, believes the two disciplines can inform each other in tangible ways.

“Through art, we can capture the essence of science in a way that’s visually beautiful and accessible,” she says.

An assistant professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Bassett uses network science—the study of how the interactions between individual elements influence the behavior of a connected whole—to understand how different regions of the human brain communicate. This summer, Bassett launched the Penn Network Visualization Program through which art students learned about network science during a six-week internship. The artwork these interns created was on display at a Penn gallery event on Aug. 8.


The participants included four young artists spanning a diverse range of fields, from graphic design, painting, and printmaking, to medical illustration and fashion.

The program began in late June with a week of lectures by Penn faculty and researchers. Topics ranged from neuroscience to epidemiology, as well as how social media can spark political revolutions. After the initial week of talks, students spent the next five weeks developing artwork inspired by what they had learned.

“For all of the artists, this experience will be life-changing,” says Sarah Hodgson, a Philadelphia-area artist and assistant director of the Network Visualization Program. “They’re thinking about ideas they’ve never thought of before and learning to express themselves in new ways.”

Peter Quinn, an art student at the University of the Arts, says the lectures led him to ponder how the scientific process relates to the artistic process.

“This program helped me formulate my own creative process of adding, subtracting, and coloring,” he says.

Brittany Bennett, an aspiring medical illustrator pursuing a dual degree at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences, also says the program broadened her creative thinking.

“I come from a very technical, scientific background, and at first I really wanted my work to be like a medical illustration,” says Bennett. “But I grew to let that go and take on more of my artistic side.”

The same can be said for the scientists involved.

“Scientists aren’t trained to look at data the way an artist is. This program is enabling us to conceptualize our research in new ways,” says Bassett.

This fall, several of the artists’ pieces will be showcased in Philadelphia-area middle schools and high schools. Bassett hopes this outreach effort will encourage children to explore intersections between the arts and sciences, while instilling a growing appreciation of their networked world.

Network 145