Doodling on the job? Federal STEM experts use artistic skills to aid agencies’ missions

Jay Krasnow
Jan 12, 2019 · 8 min read
Georgia Basso is an environmental scientist at the Fish & Wildlife Service — but paints wetlands too.

Dozens of people converged at an Adams Morgan coffeehouse in early November last year to see an exhibit that two dozen scientist-artists — many who work for the federal government — hosted to boost awareness of environmental conservation.

The art show, which runs until February 3, features pieces created by 21 artists who work in 20 different scientific fields.

Among the exhibit’s pieces is a watercolor of a wetland converted to farmland created by Georgia Basso, a wildlife biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and a photo of volcanic lava flow on aluminum plate created by Kristin Lewis, a climate scientist at the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which coordinates federal research on global environment issues.

Basso, an exhibit co-coordinator, said that she hopes the show at Philz Coffee helps spark discussion about environmental and conservation sciences.

The idea behind the event, said Basso, is for conservation-minded scientists “to come together and talk about the other ways of communicating our scientific background … and to pursue creative ways of communicating their expertise” in climatology, hydrology and other conservation science fields.

In using their artistic talents to showcase their professional interests, Basso and Lewis aren’t alone. In fact, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) experts across the federal government who are engaged in painting, acting, doodling and other creative endeavors frequently use their creative talents on job in the federal government, these scientists say.

Take Michelle Thaller, an astronomer who studies stars at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Md., for example.

As a student of astrophysics at the University of California, Los Angeles, Thaller peeled away from her studies to take a leading role in Live Action Role-Playing (LARPing) — a role-playing game in which the participants physically act out their characters’ actions.

Thaller, now assistant director for science communications at Goddard Space Flight Center, says that her performing arts skills are integral to her role as a science educator because they help her speak to audiences with more authority about her scientific interests.

“What I tell scientists is that you don’t need to be perfect [in communicating about scientific topics], if you’re authentic, speaking from the heart about why your science is interesting,” said Thaller. According to Thaller, the life cycle of the stars and other astrophysics topics that she studies are some of the best stories in the universe. To help her staff recount these interstellar tales more effectively in public and scientific settings Thaller hires improv actors who have experience working with scientists.

“We are very aware of this benefit of performing and becoming comfortable in front of an audience of NASA,” added Thaller. “Learning how to break down the barrier with the audience. How to project yourself well. How to project your emotions.”

Meanwhile, in Tucson, Ariz., Michelle Rouch, an electrical engineer, monitors the performance of government contractors for the Defense Contract Management Agency — which provides contract administration services for the Department of Defense — and doodles during her free time.

Rouch’s doodles often end up in PowerPoint slides that she creates to update contractors on audit results. “Sometimes as an auditor, we deliver bad news. Sometimes I deliver it with a cartoon,” Rouch said. “Using cartoons kind of breaks the ice.”

Among the cartoons Rouch created to deliver that bad news is a character she calls ‘Red Tape,’ a stand-in for the government rules and formalities that she enforces.

“I’m red tape,” Rouch said. “I’m the government.”

In one such Red Tape cartoon, a red tape dispenser, representing the government, battles a brawny sumo wrestler, representing the federal contractor. At the fight’s end, the sumo wrestler is hobbled by the red tape, which encompasses his body.

From Rouch’s point of view, her Red Tape cartoon helps smooth over an otherwise uncomfortable discussion at a diplomatic level: A contractor on the receiving end of Red Tape told that they worked even harder to meet government auditing requirements because of the way she delivered it — using the doodle.

Some 430 miles west of Rouch’s office, in Carlsbad, Calif., David Zoutendyk, a supervisory biologist at the Fish and Wildlife Service, advises landowners on how to avoid running afoul of the law when endangered species inhabit their property.

During his field trips to wildlife refuges Zoutendyk, a photography aficionado, brings his camera and snaps pictures of endangered species. On recent trip Zoutendyk saw a group of egrets — an endangered species of birds that often has ornamental white plumage prized in Oriental ceremonial dress and in women’s hats — and was intrigued.

“As I was driving by I just noticed an assemblage of the egrets, and I thought that was perfect light, and just snapped a photo of them,” said Zoutendyk, who frequently posts his photos on Instagram.

In photographing endangered species Zoutendyk sees himself as an artist, but he also hopes his pictures of these animals will educate people on the diversity of wildlife that he and his staff work to protect, at the same time they promote the mission of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

On the other side of the country, in Dawson, Ga., Victor Sobolev takes photographs of nature and building interiors during his free time. During business hours Sobolev, works as a chemist at the Agriculture Research Service — the research arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. From the Agriculture Research Service’s office at the National Peanut Laboratory, Sobolev analyzes pathogens, fungi and bacteria attached to peanuts and writes scientific publications about his findings. Those papers carry titles such as ‘Peanut germplasm screening for aflatoxin accumulation and genetic fingerprinting,’ and often come complete with macrophotographs — photos of small objects in high resolution — of peanuts that Sobolev has taken himself.

While Sobolev acknowledges that documenting microscopic elements of peanuts in photographs is part of his job, taking macrophotographs of agricultural products in the proper lighting and depth of fields — the distance between the nearest and furthest objects in focus in an image — is not part of his training.

“Pictures are 1,000 words. Photography is just a means to convey the artist’s message,” said Sobolev, whose agricultural art has been shown in Agricultural Research Service’s offices in Washington, D.C.

Unlike Sobolev, Philip Riggs, a geospatial scientist at the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, another U.S. Department of Agriculture agency, uses his creative hobby as a networking tool.

From his office in Fort Collins, Colo., Riggs crunches data and creates dashboards that help him solve difficult problems relating to the welfare of plants and animals. While Riggs enjoys a variety of creative endeavors outside work — including woodworking, painting and playing the guitar — it is his cartoons that he brings into the professional world.

While the Defense Contract Management Agency’s Rouch puts her cartoons in PowerPoint presentations, Riggs uses his cartoons to make commentary about complex topics relating to his trade as a data analyst. Riggs posts his cartoons to LinkedIn and Twitter to make his data analysis colleagues laugh and to engage them in electronic discussions on topics that other data analysis professionals have also experienced at work.

A self-described ‘wall-flower,’ Riggs is regularly pegged as ‘the guy who draws cartoons’ at conferences attended by more than 17,000 people.

“When I first started going [to conferences] I knew absolutely nobody,” said Riggs. “So I started drawing these cartoons. Slowly I met a lot of people, so that when I go to conferences it is an easy way to meet new people … and kind of serves as an icebreaker.”

Some other government scientist-artists find a benefit to their creative endeavors, even if they don’t bring them to work. During his free time, Milton Valentin, a nuclear engineer at the U.S. Nuclear Energy Commission in Rockville, Md., performs as singer in a Latin rock band called Ocho de Bastos.

Valentin doesn’t sing during coffee breaks during business hours. Still, Valentin believes that his technical and creative sides go hand-in-hand.

When he gets exhausted from drafting documents or reading about engineering standards, Valentin said that he likes to relax his brain and think about the melodies and lyrics he will use for his next performance.

“When I go to work I feel more relaxed because I have that outlet to just enjoy myself” as a musician, Valentin said.

Meanwhile, Bella King, a chemist and post-doctoral fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based National Nuclear Security Administration — which works to increase the safety and security of nuclear materials — creates abstract painting during off-hours.

Like Valentin, King doesn’t bring her creative skills to work. Also like Valentin, King nevertheless sees a professional benefit to her creativity.

“Science, at least from my perspective, takes a lot of creativity: Coming up with new ideas, finding a new way to satisfy some gap or need and using your fundamental knowledge in order to create a new response to that,” said King. “I think it pairs very well with the artistic mind.”

Christopher G. Thomas, press team lead in the Office of Communications and Public Liaison at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, is not surprised that scientist-artists are speckled across the federal government, including his agency. “Creativity is hard-wired into our brain, and that’s what scientists do,” said Thomas.

Michael E. Long, a physicist, playwright and co-author of The Molecule of More — a book that focuses on the impact of a brain chemical activity on human behaviors — agrees that scientists tend to have more artistic interests than non-scientists.

According to Long, dopamine — a brain chemical often associated with love and other pleasures — is actually a predictor of behavior across a broad swath of human endeavors, including creating art, literature, music and seeking success.

Dopamine, Long said, is the “engine of abstract thinking,” and scientists — like artists — often have elevated levels of dopamine. Moreover, Long noted, elite societies of scientists like the National Academy of Sciences in the United States and the Royal Society in the United Kingdom are filled with scientists who have creative hobbies.

“Dopamine allows us to create things that aren’t yet there. It is the foundation, the molecular foundation of human endeavor from the most mundane, to the most spectacular,” said Long.

Dean Keith Simonton, a distinguished professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, Davis, notes that new discoveries and inventions require creativity. “The basic creative process is the same in both science and art. It’s just the content of that creativity that differs,” Simonton wrote in email response to a reporter’s questions.

Moreover, noted Jim Davies, a cognitive scientist at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, scientists become famous through creativity.

“That’s their job. Would you ask why an artist is creative?,” asked Davies.

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