DSC_0135“Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses — especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”   Leonardo da Vinci

Lilies in the bio lab

CCRI workshops expose students to the many possibilities and wonders of science

As many college students quickly discover, figuring out what you want to do with your life is a lot more challenging once the decision lands squarely in your lap.

What do I want to be? It is the age-old question pondered since childhood. Yet, when you finally have the autonomy to make a choice, the answer suddenly becomes elusive.

The Biology Department at the Community College of Rhode Island is trying to help students discover their intentions with a series of In-Reach workshops aimed at exploring options in science.

The free events — funded by Rhode Island NSF Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) — target students enrolled at CCRI, hence the ‘in-reach’ rather than outreach.

Emily Dustman, CCRI adjunct professor, led the most recent session in late April, Art Forms in Nature, where big glass flasks of lilies greeted students arriving in the biology lab on the Lincoln campus.

Dustman led the group through an overview of plant science, from form to function, reviewing the anatomy of plants, their reproduction and their role in ameliorating climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide.

Emily Dustman, CCRI
Emily Dustman, CCRI adjunct professor, takes notes as students list the roles of plants in nature.

At the same time, she offered up the art of plant science, quoting Johann Wolfgang von Goethe from his 1790 “The Metamorphosis of Plants,” in a booklet she prepared for students: “Short of Aphrodite, there is nothing lovelier on this planet than a flower, nor more essential than a plant. The true matrix of human life is the greensward covering mother earth. Without green plants we would neither breathe nor eat.”

Meanwhile, a display of books for students to browse through lined a lab table, from the practical (plant illustrations) to the existential (Pablo Neruda’s “The Book of Questions”).

And after dissecting the plants, labeling the parts and looking at pieces under the microscope, Dustman told the students they would then take up brushes and acrylic to paint specimens.

“Through collaboration, we learn more,” she said, explaining the cross-section of disciplines.

Dustman knows firsthand of what she speaks, the embodiment of science and art. Calling herself a turtle biologist, she holds a master’s degree in herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians.

And now, she is pursuing her natural science illustration certificate at Rhode Island School of Design while painting the turtles of Rhode Island for Roger Williams Zoo. She also teaches organismal biology at CCRI and Rhode Island College.

“From when I was very young, I’ve loved both the arts and science,” she said. “Creating, exploring and studying — I have a very curious mind. And, the artist studio is very much like a science lab. It is a space to create and ask questions, to explore and experiment.”

CCRI students dissect lilies
Students reviews the steps of dissecting lilies before disassembling and labeling the parts of the flower.

Tim Pelletier, RI NSF EPSCoR outreach, education and diversity coordinator, who coordinates the EPSCoR grant at CCRI, said the Biology Department saw the workshops as an opportunity to create an experience for students beyond the classroom and possibly tap into undiscovered interests.

“We want to teach them what is available at CCRI in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, including art,” Pelletier said. “Maybe they’ve been intimidated by science and we can expose them to something that they like and can do. Our mission is to introduce aspects of science they haven’t studied or thought of before.”

Dustman’s workshop gave students the chance to smell, touch, and feel, the taking apart of a plant, learning about the anatomy, how the plant works, and the function within nature. The painting portion allowed them to express and interpret what they learned.

It is through this kind of creative process, Pelletier said, that students typically discover new opportunities and career paths they might not otherwise imagine.

Story and photos by Amy Dunkle