When science meets art: 6 NSF research projects that turn STEM into STEAM

There's beauty in science. Throughout history, scientists have been inspired by the elegant designs of nature and are fascinated today by new pictures of atomic structures and galactic black holes. Yet this overlap between science and art is often overlooked.

By adding art in their work, NSF-funded researchers are breaking traditional boundaries to transform STEM -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- into STEAM!

By Andrea Stathopoulos, PhD


an old white stone building sits in front of a sky with a setting sun
The Alamo Photo Credit: Dean Fikar/Shutterstock.com

1. Rather than choose between pursuing a career in chemistry or the arts, Madeline Corona pursued a role where she could do both. She began exploring the science of art conservation as an undergraduate student after joining the chemistry lab of Michelle Bushey. She then landed a summer internship studying the pigments in historic frescos at the Alamo. Using scientific equipment to measure how materials interact with light, absorbing or reflecting it, she could carefully identify chemical elements and compounds in specific pigments.

Corona earned a master's degree in art conservation and continues to put theory into practice as the Assistant Conservator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

A Renaissance-era artwork with figures in robes is pictured above a microscopic view of a crusty white, green and brown subtsance
Lead soaps present a conservation challenges for paintings such as The Birth of Saint John the Baptist by Fracesco Granacci (ca. 1506–1507). The salt-like deposits protrude through the paint surface and give rise to a granular to surface texture of the paint. Photo Credit: Credit: Silvia Centeno/Metropolitan Museum of Art

2. The Metropolitan Museum of Art takes the science of art conservation very seriously. In order to better understand how to preserve paintings for future museum goers, scientists Cecil Dybowski at the University of Delaware and Silvia Centeno at the Met study the way paintings deteriorate.  As oil in paint ages, it develops salt-like deposits called "lead soaps." Lead soaps can cause a painting to deteriorate and alter the appearance of paint colors. By analyzing how these paint films develop, researchers and curators can improve restoration techniques and develop safer environmental conditions for storage.

Clear discs with colorful designs are seen on top of a white background
A collection of petri dishes "painted" with colorful bacterial strains Photo Credit: Caleb Eckert

3. Jessica Hoover, an NSF CAREER awardee at West Virginia University, teaches and researches organic chemistry. She also masterminds and co-leads the Community Engagement in Science Through Art program, a one-month summer program for students to collaborate on an art installation piece, drawing on their different backgrounds in sculpture, engineering and chemistry.

These teams of students must overcome the technical jargon of their own disciplines to collaborate in creating an interactive art piece for their local campus community. The project aims to train students in communication and collaboration skills, making both science and art more visible to the public.

A mosaic of photos show a variety of colorful sculptures
Chemistry sculptures created by CESTA students. Photo Credit: CESTA

4. Lou Charkoudian, another CAREER awardee, takes science into the art gallery. A chemistry professor at Haverford College, she integrates active research projects in biochemistry into her classroom. She also takes her students out of the traditional classroom.

Teaming up with the Center for Creative Works, a local art studio whose artists are adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, students engage in a reciprocal process of both teaching and learning. Undergraduates demonstrate how to make "BioArt" by painting different strains of bacteria onto petri dishes. The adults then teach the college students needlepoint and how to create unique designs with decoupage, a technique involving layering paper cutouts and glue. All the bacteria-themed pieces are displayed in an exhibit after the course, strengthening community engagement.

A polyhedron  made out of colorful paper folded together
An origami model constructed of multiple phizz units. Photo Credit: Flickr User Wu-Lee

5. Origami, the ancient Japanese art of paper folding, is a perfect mathematical analogy. Mathematicians such as Thomas Hull at Western New England University use mathematical formulas to predict how materials fold. Hull has discovered two well-known origami patterns, including modular phizz units, which are pentagon-hexagon zig-zags that can be combined into many larger shapes. New origami models inspire solutions to age-old problems in engineering. For example, the Miura-ori origami pattern was used to carefully fold and deploy a solar panel array on Japan's 1996 Space Flyer Unit.

In addition to solving mathematical theores, Hull also works with students on origami research projects, helping students learn math and also engage with the interesting and ancient technique of origami. You can learn more in a recent video interview for the Museo del Origami in Uruguay, one of only two origami museums in the world.

[Learn more about NSF-funded science that is inspired by origami in the above video]


A man in a laboratory holds up a small blue disc between his fingers
Mas Subramanian holds up a disc of YInMn blue, a new pigment he discovered in 2009 Photo Credit: University of Oregon

6. For centuries, humans have experimented with natural pigments to dye, draw, paint and color clothing, pottery and murals. But we're still making colorful discoveries. Mas Subramanian's lab at Oregon State University accidentally discovered YInMn blue in 2009 -- the first new blue pigment discovered in over 200 years! YInMn blue is a safe, stable and incredibly vivid blue pigment. Made of yttrium, indium, and manganese, this new blue even inspired Crayola's "bluetiful" crayon and has recently been fully approved for commercial use.

Now Subramanian's lab is seeing red. They just received an NSF EAGER (Early Concepts Grants for Exploratory Research) award to develop an inorganic red pigment that has the rare but very important combination of vibrancy and non-toxicity.

What art breakthroughs will scientific discovery lead to next?


About the Author

Image of a smiling woman
Andrea Stathopoulos, PhD
AAAS Science and Technology Fellow

Andrea Stathopoulos is a neuroscientist and 2019-2020 AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow hosted in the Office of the Assistant Director (OAD) in the Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS). Before coming to the DC area, Andrea was a visiting professor of physiology at Wittenberg University where she taught Biology and advised students on behavioral research in rodents. She received her PhD from Florida State University where she collaborated with mathematical modelers on how the brain regulates female reproductive hormones. While there, she also was instrumental in the revival of the Graduate Women in Science organization and participated often in STEM outreach in the community.

Andrea has always had interdisciplinary interests, concentrating in neuroscience while an undergraduate at DePauw University before it was an established major. Her big science policy dreams are to see more women in science, as both researchers and subjects, and to improve public science literacy. In her free time, she enjoys volunteering and taking dance classes.