Scientific Art or Artistic Science?

Dr. Alison Adcock isn’t just a scientist or the principal investigator of the lab I work at—she’s also an artist. Ever since she was a child, she had a desire to understand the brain—how the brain that instinctively draws our hands back from a hot stove is the same brain that is able to think critically and philosophically. She was initially fascinated by the concept of learning, particularly regarding the structure-function relationship of the hippocampus, and she was driven to understand it at a deeper level. Dr. Adcock followed that curiosity, majoring in Psychology at Emory University. One of her formative experiences during her undergraduate years, however, was traveling abroad to Oxford University to study under their Psychology, Philosophy, and Physiology (PPP) program. With this multidimensional education, she was left to consider following either one of two paths—an artist or a scientist. Dr. Adcock soon realized that she would likely be more able to integrate art into science than science into art. “Science is about curiosity,” she says. She describes how some scientists are utilitarian, considering only that which is practical or novel. Yet she didn’t want that to be her science—she wanted to pursue a path where she could integrate art, service, society, and her own personal aims. As such, she went to Yale University to pursue her M.D.-Ph.D., wanting to experience both worlds of a physician and researcher. As she continued with her career and consequently made her way to Duke, she began to question more—why people choose to investigate the world, why we fail to learn at times, and when and if we can be ready to learn at all. These questions form the basis of the Adcock Lab, as the intrinsic and extrinsic mediating variables surrounding learning are the pillars of the projects being done today.

When asked about what she likes about her lab, Dr. Adcock responds that one of her favorite components was actually something she didn’t expect. She found that by helping others refine their own research questions and explore their own aims, she was able to see how their questions and aims overlapped with her own. This almost symbiotic relationship of learning wouldn’t occur if every researcher worked separately and secretly; collaboration, therefore, is one of her personal joys. Before moving on to the next question, however, she adds—“and of course, discovery,” and smiles.

What she enjoys about science is not just limited to her work in the lab. “Similar to faith, [science] is a way to access a truth,” Dr. Adcock says. Scientists do well in refining and getting closer to that truth, every discovery a marker of human progress. Even so, she wishes that the genuine scientific process, beyond simply just the “eureka”s and the Nobel Prizes, would be better acknowledged. “If we value only the objective and the utilitarian, we implicitly devalue the subjective things, like the process,” Dr. Adcock asserts. She continues, stating that if we pretend that the error-filled, emotion-filled uncertainties don’t exist, we fail to represent to others how beautiful science is. It’s important to embrace the unknown as we continue to refine certain truths, to embrace our stumbles on the road to discovery. As a current college student exploring the scientific unknown, this particularly resonated with me.

When I followed by asking Dr. Adcock what she would say to her college self, she sits and thinks for a while before responding: “To not worry so much about being right. We’re always wrong; always just trying to be less wrong. Be aware for when performance is the most important (which is almost never, she adds) and for when it is not grades, but what you learn.” From one artist-scientist to another, sitting down with Dr. Adcock was truly an insightful experience. As I become more integrated into the scientific community, I hope that my own exploration into the unknown follows a path not just in science, but art, ethics, and emotion.

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