There are "things hidden in plain sight" all around us. But art can help students see their world anew, unlocking discoveries in fields ranging from plant biology to biomedical imaging, according to University of Delaware professor John Jungck.
Jungck's sentiments were echoed by a panel of experts speaking on "Artful Science" on Feb. 15 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston. Jungck organized the panel and also spoke at the event.
Canoeing on a lake near his home in northwestern Minnesota when he was a youngster, Jungck became enthralled by the patterns of the cloud formations he saw as the fog lifted.
Today, the respected biologist and mathematician, who is a AAAS Fellow, a Fulbright Scholar to Thailand, a Mina Shaughnessy Scholar and editor of Biology International, is still fascinated by the tremendous beauty he sees in nature's perfect patterns and how mathematics can help expose hidden information.
Jungck studies radiolaria, marine microbes that he refers to as "amoeba that live in glass houses." These organisms with glass-like skeletons have an awe-inspiring symmetry and geometry.
Jungck uses them in his teaching and research in mathematical biology, as well as 3D FractaL Tree, a software program he co-developed that allows students to build realistic three-dimensional computer models of trees from just a few measurements from actual trees.
The tree-building process not only helps students appreciate the aesthetics of nature, he says, but the mathematics of biological systems. Important lessons, indeed.
"The new forms of visualization available today show how the combination of art, biology and mathematics saves lives — would you rather have a brain biopsy to investigate a headache problem, or rely on magnetic resonance imaging that's dependent on math?" he asks.
Jungck joined the University of Delaware faculty this past September as a professor of biological sciences and as the director of interdisciplinary science learning laboratories in the new Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Laboratory (ISE Lab), a 194,000 square-foot facility that will open during fall 2013.
The high-tech facility will bring together experts from a variety of disciplines to work on challenges in the energy and environmental arenas. Students will be taught in four problem-based learning instructional laboratories that feature lab spaces with adjoining classrooms for discussing research problems and immediately testing possible solutions.
Jungck is a big believer in interdisciplinary collaboration. His laboratory teams routinely have included biologists, mathematicians and artists, and he wants to involve policy specialists on future projects, as well.
Such an "interdisciplinary village" will be crucial to the future advances he envisions, such as a medical forecast channel to pinpoint globally when and where infectious diseases such as flu, SARS and West Nile virus are coming.
"You need all of these communities," he says. "They help foster imagination and allow you to see patterns that you otherwise wouldn't be able to see."