Imagine an experiment that involves scientists and no lab. In fact, this experiment required five of us scientists to leave our labs at ETH Zurich and the University of Basel and mix with very different people in an environment quite alien to our “natural habitat”.
What happens when you transpose five scientists from their labs to a Film Festival’s artistic residence for ten days?
Every year, the Locarno Film Festival hosts 150 young artists, photographers, and filmmakers from across the world. The initiative, “BaseCamp Laboratory of Ideas”, provides a space for growth, exchange and creation. This year, BaseCamp saw a unique mashup of science and art, because for ten days (4–14 August 2021), five young researchers participated as “Scientists in Residence”. The unusual environment challenged us to step out of our academic bubbles.
The scientific presence at BaseCamp was made possible by the breakthrough project Art of Molecule, the Ethics initiative of the National Centre of Competence in Research – Molecular Systems Engineering (NCCR-MSE). Art of Molecule is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation and coordinated by Ralf Stutzki, an expert in science communication at the University of Basel. Created in 2019, it aims to facilitate science communication and outside-the-box thinking for early-career researchers.
Our team consisted of a diverse group of scientists from different Swiss research institutions: two doctoral candidates and a Postdoc from ETH Zürich D-BSSE (Eunhee Cho, Beichen Gao, and Dr. Akanksha Jain; a Postdoc from ETH Zürich D-HEST Health Ethics and Policy Lab (Dr. Renan Leonel), and a Postdoc from the University of Basel’s Department of Chemistry (Dr. Viviana Maffeis).
Located in a military barracks at Losone (near Locarno), BaseCamp was full of creative professionals from Switzerland and abroad, studying, working in, or curious about filmmaking, art installations, design, photography, music, and, also, science. For ten exciting days, we wrestled with how to represent the scientific method and art in science, looking for overlaps in our two worlds.
But what could possibly intersect between the arts, film and science? Over the course of the ten days, three of our projects came to life:
First, a mural, First Impressions – an interactive collage with photographs and images of the life sciences we produced in the lab.
Second, the bio-artistic collection BASECAMPBioSigns, where we captured the bacterial diversity from work objects, tools and pieces of art installations associated with 15 artists’ media on LB-agar plates, which the artists were delighted to see grow in artistic shapes.
And third, a mini-ethnographic experiment on creativity and curiosity, Essay on Art, Film and Sciences – spontaneous conversations about projects, concepts and design between a filmmaker, an artist, and a scientist.
Despite initial misgivings, both sides quickly recognised some surprising similarities in our work, and that there was plenty to learn from each other.
About the authors
Renan Leonel is a Postdoctoral researcher at the Health Ethics and Policy Lab, Department of Health Sciences and Technology (D-HEST), ETH Zürich. Renan works in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS), interested in the cultural aspects involved in the relationship between Science and Society. He specialises in ethnography of scientific knowledge and spent his days at BaseCamp observing how scientists and creative professionals share discourses and practices of meaning-making in regards with curiosity, creativity, and science communication.
Eunhee Cho is a PhD student at ETH Zürich in Professor Andrew deMello’s group at the Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences (D-CHAB). Her research interests lie in developing and utilising microfluidics technology for applications in chemistry and biology. Outside her scientific interests, she enjoys contemporary art and floristry.
Beichen Gao is a PhD student in Prof. Sai Reddy’s group at the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering (D-BSSE), ETH-Zürich. His research is focused on synthetic immunology, and deep learning driven antibody discovery. Outside of the lab, he’s interested in exploring the use of visual art and storytelling for effective science communication.
Akanksha Jain is a Postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Prof. Barbara Treutlein at the Department of Biosystems, Science and Engineering (D-BSSE), ETH-Zurich in Basel. She studies 4D tissue morphogenesis and development of human brain organoids using long term microscopy and transcriptomics. She is passionate about science communication and policy, and beyond the lab can be found immersed in archaeology, painting, writing poetry or gardening.
Viviana Maffeis is a Postdoctoral researcher in Physical Chemistry in the group of Prof. Palivan in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Basel. Her research focuses on engineering molecular systems to mimic cells and organelles at chemical and spatial complexity. Beside science, she is fascinated by art and philosophy.