Sophie Budge is a PhD researcher at the University of Cranfield Water Science Institute. She looks at the effect of exposure to bacteria on growth in infants in Ethiopia. Sophie will be on her soapbox at Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on Saturday June 30, talking about ‘Guts, Germs and Growth: how bacteria affects child development’.
Follow Sophie on twitter: @Sophie_Budge
‘For most scientists, I think the justification of their work is to be found in the pure joy of its creativeness; the spirit which moves them is closely akin to the imaginative vision which inspires an artist.’
– James B. Conant
I was always a creative child. I grew up in a large house that had a room to keep my drawing things and paints and my easel (it still amuses me that I wanted an easel at 10 years old). I remember copying album covers, magazine pictures, other artists – I suppose in an early bid to discover my own style. Even earlier still, at aged 7 or 8, I’d make my older sister and cousin take part in drawing competitions at our dining room table which my father would, under protest, have to judge (and guess who would invariably win?). But my childhood was not all perfect, and in many ways art became my escape and my meditation.
I was bright at school; science came easily to me, yet art had my heart, and so at 17 I was convinced I was destined to be an artist. I recall a conversation with my sister at the time: she warned me of limiting my options – how could that be so? I decided privately that to change tack could be nothing less than disenchantment with life itself. So I worked hard for 2 years at art college, lugged my portfolio on the 502 National Express to London, made it into the prestigious University of the Arts and away I was: country bumpkin to city hopeful.
Yet curiously, I returned to science again and again through my artistic endeavours. Intrigued by psychology and our personal evolution throughout our lives, my art took the form of video, film and sound where I explored ideas of reminiscence, trauma, processing memory and growth. I read articles, books, watched documentaries: read academic papers and thought how I could make the abstract tangible. I made short films of re-enacted memories. I smashed up old televisions and re-hung the thousands of fragments, ceiling-height, with invisible wire – a projector playing made-up sequences of film through the broken screen. I made films of friends in dressed in costumes of Tetris pieces, after reading an article that the game helped sufferers of post-traumatic stress. I was obsessed with creating my own map of life and how we, each of us, fit into it.
Science and art are often discussed as among the highest intellectual accomplishments (‘In science truth, in art honour.’ – Anonymous; in the Routledge Dictionary of Latin Quotations 2005). Both the artist and scientist need creativity, vision and an ability to see in the abstract. Both are motivated by an insatiable desire to understand the world– and to impart or represent that knowledge to others. A canvas, a charcoal pencil, a test tube, a mix of chemicals: what are science and art but just different lenses through which we try to understand the world?
Similarly, it is common to hear a scientist describe their methods creatively (such as in Soapbox Science) or for an artist to use scientific theory to explain their approach (Picasso’s Cubist painting style, like Einstein’s theory of relativity, requires the viewer to think hard, but it rewards the effort with a clear understanding). Scientists spend their lives discovering or proving new concepts: artists express them. We should also bear in mind that for centuries, how we practiced science was driven by what we believed as a society, through ancient beliefs and arts (for example, trepanning – a medical procedure where a hole is drilled or scraped into the skull to let out ‘evil spirits’). Indeed, although science itself is not a mystery, even today much of the physical and natural world remains a mystery which we are unable to explain with our modern methods and technologies.
I eventually left my art degree. It seemed my need to ask questions and answer them was greater than my need to express that, and I was frustrated. My sister, of course, was right – I had limited my options, but it wasn’t the end of the world. I studied A-levels for Biology, Psychology and Chemistry as evening classes, and soon I was on my Human Nutrition bachelors and then my masters. I don’t smash up televisions anymore but I do still paint and draw frequently – it’s still my meditation, and it reminds me that life is not a hypothesis we must test.
My creative side certainly helps with my PhD: I always like to look at the bigger picture – something important when it’s so easy to get stuck in tiny details, especially in the lab (similarly, I definitely mix paint better!). I embrace both my creative and scientific side, not wondering which I ‘should’ engage or which may serve me best in life, but with an appreciation that I can understand life in different ways – and that gratitude keeps me motivated.
To see my art, visit my Instagram page at handle: sophie.b.art.