Penn Blends Art and Science With Network Visualization Program

By Madeleine Stone  @themadstone

Science and art are often perceived to be at odds with each other, two fundamentally different ways of understanding the world. But University of Pennsylvania researcher Danielle Bassett believes science and art can inform each other in very tangible ways.

Bassett is an assistant professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Department of Bioengineering, with close ties to researchers in the Department of Psychiatry of Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. Bassett uses tools from 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 interact.

This summer, Bassett launched the Penn Network Visualization Program in which art students learned about network science during a six-week internship. The project culminated with a gallery event Aug. 8 displaying the interns’  artwork.

“As a scientist, I’ve learned that the visual appeal of the information I present is crucially important. Networks are visually intuitive,” said Bassett. “I’ve often thought they could be used as a common language between scientists and artists.”

Soon after beginning her position at Penn in the fall of 2013, Bassett recruited Sarah Hodgson, a Philadelphia-area artist and art teacher, to serve as associate director for a pilot program that would blend the science, engineering, technology and mathematics, or STEM, fields with art, producing STEAM. Hodgson reached out to students from art schools locally and nationally, while Bassett recruited colleagues at Penn to provide guest lectures.

Four young artists and two high school students from the Philadelphia area and beyond were selected to participate in the inaugural Network Visualization Program. The program began in late June with a week of lectures on network science by Penn faculty and researchers. The topics ranged from neuroscience to epidemiology to how social media can spark political revolutions. With guidance from professional artists, the students then worked hard for five weeks to develop artwork inspired by what they had learned.

The student gallery event was diverse, underscoring the many different ways networks can be conceptualized by the creative mind.


Kathryn Khorassani, a fashion graduate from Philadelphia University, was inspired by a lecture on epilepsy to weave a 10-foot long, three-dimensional sculpture from brightly colored telephone wire. The sculpture was drawn from images of EEG readouts during an epileptic seizure, with woven stiches mimicking the oscillatory shape of a brain wave.

“This sculpture was fascinating,” said Bassett. “The concepts embodied here have really helped me to think about epileptic seizures in new ways.”

Brittany Bennett, a dual-degree student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences, also presented a complex scientific process through sculpture. Bennett became intrigued by how information is processed in the eye, following a lecture on neural activity in salamander retinal tissue.

“I started researching how this pathway of cells works,” said Bennett. “But the way the eye is represented in diagrams doesn’t do a good job showing that there are several successions of layers.”

Instead of a diagram, Bennett created a three-dimensional sculpture that hangs like a lampshade over a glowing red light. To her, the analogy of a lamp was helpful in conceptualizing how information is processed in the eye.

“When light comes into the eye, it goes to the photoreceptors first, then it travels back to the optic nerve, which sends and electrical signal to the brain,” said Bennett, tracing the pathway on her sculpture.

Technology added an interactive component to the gallery event. Adam Lastowka, a home-schooled 10th grader who has been coding since the fifth grade, used Javascript to build a motion controlled, interactive animation, intended to represent how disease spreads.

“The display uses physics from kinetic springs,” said Lastowka. “The nodes are being pulled together and simultaneously trying to move apart. It’s kind of alive.”

Other artists had a more abstract take on what they had learned.

Peter Quinn, a student at the University of the Arts, and Hayley Sharpe, a recent B.F.A. graduate in painting and printmaking from Virginia Commonwealth University, both created vibrant, mixed-media paintings depicting the concept of networks more than individual examples.

“Throughout the lectures I was thinking about how the scientific process relates to the artistic process,” said Quinn. “This program helped me formulate my own creative process of adding, subtracting and coloring.”

Bennett, an aspiring medical illustrator, found herself pushed to express scientific concepts in new ways.

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

“For all of the artists, this experience will be life changing,” said Hodgson. “None of them has ever done anything like this before. They’re thinking about ideas they’ve never thought of before.”

The same can be said for the scientists involved.

“Because network data is so complex, it can be difficult to just compute statistics and understand what’s going on,” said Bassett. “Having conversations with artists about how to visualize these networks is inspiring us to think about our data in new ways.”

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.

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