Christian Loyo from the Grossman Laboratory and Sheena Vasquez from the Drennan Laboratory, both graduate students from the Department of Biology, were recently selected to participate in The Poetry of Science. The project, founded by Joshua Sariñana PhD ’11, aims to advance racial justice at the intersection of science and art by bringing together poets and scientists of color affiliated with Cambridge, Massachusetts to create poems about the Scientific Research. These poems will be on display to the public, along with portraits of the scientists, in the main lobby of Massachusetts General Hospital from November 13 to 30 and at MIT’s Rotch Library during the Independent Activities Period (IAP) in January 2022.
For Loyo and Vasquez, The Poetry of Science was the perfect opportunity to create something of impact by combining their personal passions for poetry, science communication and racial justice. They worked with two poets (Danielle Legros Georges and Luisa Fernanda Apolaya Torres, respectively) to create poems based on their research. Loyo and Vasquez sat down to discuss the project.
Question: You are both accomplished scientists, but you also spend time working within your communities on various outreach programs. How did these experiences influence the way you approach your scientific research or your roles as scientists?
Wash: I conducted K-12 through undergraduate outreach activities during my time at MIT. My most recent outreach targets local community colleges around MIT including Bunker Hill Community College and Roxbury Community College. The outreach experiences really make me take a step back and think about how to make my science more accessible to the general public. Overall, experiences like these allow me to improve my mentoring skills. Working with students from different backgrounds shows me how fortunate I am to conduct research at one of the best institutions in the world. If I can be successful at an institute like MIT, I feel like anyone else can.
Loyo: For me, it was not easy to get into science. It took a lot of people who became my mentors to teach me what I now know about being a scientist and navigating academia. As an undergraduate student I was looking for a research lab and probably emailed 50 professors; none of them had room. I was about to give up when I finally found a teacher who wanted to meet me and take a chance. It meant a lot to me and is actually in Luisa’s poem. I ended up having a great deal of experience exploring research questions at a fairly high level for an undergraduate student. This opportunity made me realize that it is really important to pay it forward. There are a lot of people who have a harder time getting into science than I do. Helping them ensures that the future of science is more inclusive.
Question: Science and art are often seen as two separate disciplines, but the Poetry of Science project aims to bridge this gap. How do you think the combination of science and the arts can advance the goal of advancing racial justice?
Loyo: I think science is understanding the universe we live in, and art is understanding what it means to be human. Because we are human, we all have prejudices. One of these prejudices can be racial prejudice. If you look at who has done science historically, it’s mostly white men. It is not because these people were the best in science; this is because not everyone was traditionally allowed to do science. Art gives us the opportunity to share our experiences as people from these historically excluded groups, and to shed light on how we came to be scientists – even though growing up we didn’t often see scientists. who looked like us.
Wash: The Poetry of Science exhibition also offers a chance to create new and positive representations of people of color. More examples of people of color in science help us break down stereotypes and learn more about the individuals themselves. This allows more stories to be told in different ways, which creates room for different perspectives. For example – and Danielle included it in her poem – something I really wish people would know is that I am human and like all scientists I make mistakes. I am still learning and growing.
Question: What was it like to communicate your research through poetry, and how do you think the arts contribute to scientific culture?
Wash: It was interesting to see what Danielle clung to when I explained my research to her. For example, there’s a part of the poem where she writes about the protein spiral, and she compares it to a girl’s curly hair. It was the alpha helix I was showing her, and it spirals like a girl’s hair – like our two hairs. It was nice to see how she made connections between my science and life in general.
The arts bring science to life, which helps improve science literacy. This is important because it puts us all on the same page about what is true and what is not. If we didn’t have some scientific knowledge about viruses, for example, we wouldn’t have gone this far in the fight against the pandemic.
Loyo: When you write a science poem it becomes much less about the details, but rather captures the love behind the research. There’s this wonder and fear that we have for the natural world, and when we can discover something about the natural world that we didn’t know before, it feels so good. People really connect with your work when they can feel the same kind of excitement and emotion.
People are also proud of art. For example, I am of Mexican origin and I am a big fan of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, who are Mexican painters. Using art can connect people to science even if they don’t really know what science is. If they can see that the person doing the experiments, for example, also grew up where they grew up, that can really be of benefit.