Renaissance Lab Episode 1: Double Exposure with Cristian Zaelzer
In our very first episode, I'm chatting with Dr. Cristian Zaelzer about how science and science communication can benefit from artistic practice, and about what happens when you expose scientists and artists to each other for the very first time.
Listen to the episode here, or read the transcript below:
Kathryn: Hi there and welcome to the very first episode of the Renaissance lab podcast! An art and science podcast brought to you by the Convergence Initiative. I'm Kathryn and I'm your host. A little bit about me before we start. I am a PhD student in Neuroscience at McGill University, I study how addiction changes the human brain at the molecular level. And I've been doing this for almost a decade. And it wasn't until about a year ago that I started really exploring the intersection between art and science. So I'm fairly new to this concept, but I'm excited to explore more about how science and art work together and help to share some of the stories of artists who use science in their work and scientists who are also artists. So without any more delay, here's our very first interview.
Kathryn: Hey, I'm gonna probably pronounce your last name wrong because I'm terrible with names. We have the privilege of our first ever guest being Dr. Cristian... Zaelzer?
Cristian: Yes, yes. That's how people say it here.
Kathryn: So, Cristian has a lot of titles. He's a research associate at the Brain Program of the research center of the McGill University Health Center Research Institute, here in Montreal. He's also the science and art advisor and a lecturer at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Concordia. And of course, he's the founder and president of the Convergence Initiative, which is how this podcast came together in the first place. You do all these things, but pretty much everything you do has something to do with science, or art, or art and science or science and art.
Kathryn: Combination of things.
Kathryn: And so let's start with science. How did how did science start for you?
Cristian: Okay, that's funny, because that was actually the last thing.
Kathryn: Oh, yeah okay.
Cristian: So I started as a scientist when I studied medical technologies in Chile. And then when I finished my degree I did a Bachelor in molecular biology. The idea was to actually enter to the PhD because I always wanted to do research. I always wanted to do investigation and research and all that. And so I entered in a program, a PhD in molecular cell biology in Chile, and I finished in 2009. I did my thesis between Chile and Chicago, pretty much that’s kind of like the formation that I have as a scientist. Then I came here to kind of do my postdoc and I stayed here working as a research associate.
Kathryn: Awesome! That's fantastic. So what kind of science do you do?
Cristian: What science I do now? Right now I'm doing neuroscience. I work in circuits in the hypothalamus that are related to detection of changes so in the balance between water and salt. But my main focus and my passion is actually with thermal sensitivity. So I work in the circuits that have to do with how the brain controls the set points for temperature and how these mix actually with why would drink water or we sweat or we lost water. So that's my real interest in all this.
Kathryn: That's cool. That's like the part of neuroscience and science in general... there's a lot of things about science, I don't know... But that's the part of neuroscience that I probably know the least actual like homeostatic functions and that kind of thing.
Cristian: Yeah, actually, I have realized like every time I talk with people here that they say I am doing this like pretty basic science and I'm not in the cognitive stuff and not doing anything you know, with imaging and behavior or something like that. So it's pretty interesting to be in that side of the science and working in something that has a totally other focus.
Kathryn: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, just basically how do you survive day to day as a thing with a brain. Interesting! So that's your science kind of path. But you said art started before.
Cristian: Yeah, I started actually before in in art when I finished my secondary is started to work in an advertising agency as a graphic designer. And I work as a replacement for several years until I decided to study the university. And then after that I continue sporadically my practice and it kind of resuscitate now in with Convergence. But in between I do a lot of work since I paint I draw. I used to write a lot before when I when I was in Chile here in English it has been a little bit more challenging. Yeah, yeah, so I started before to do stuff related with art I did play for several years bagpipe also. Ah, so I created a music festival in Chile. I entered to my PhD and the same year I did Music Festival for Celtic music.
Kathryn: Okay, is it still going on?
Cristian: No, no, it was just me. And then...
Kathryn: You are the festival!
Cristian: I did bring in a lot of people, but didn't they didn't continue because was no one else doing the thing.
Kathryn: Music and writing and design and painting and I know you do stained glass. Yeah, that's amazing. So did you just like pick these things up on your own? Or do you get like any kind of formal training and these different art forms?
Cristian: No, actually, I got all of them from myself. Like, even graphic designer. I never studied graphic design. I learned graphic design working in that. Yes. in in the in the advertising agency. I worked in several of them in Chile. So yeah, more like how we call that? More like, apprentice? So when you learn something with someone that teaches you about it.
Kathryn: Yeah, like a mentor-mentorship thing.
Cristian: Exactly. So I studied in secondary computer programming and computer science. So then it was very easy for me to learn programs and to manage them. And since I always liked drawing so was kind of easy to mix you know programs. Like digital construction of images and all that. Yeah, with what I was doing already. And that was the way that I entered in my first job as a graphic designer. I just appeared with tons of drawings and I said I want to make these computerized. And they say, okay,
Kathryn: That's awesome! So I am thinking back to my own childhood. Yeah. And I remember as a kid, like, you know, elementary school, you know, you take art class, you take science class, and I liked both of them personally. But I found I was just like innately a little bit better. It took less effort for me to do the science than the art. So I was like, oh, clearly, I'm a scientist and not an artist. But like for you, like drawing and stuff like did you find that you kind of took to both at the same time?
Cristian: You know it's always been conflicting. Because we grow in a society that like you to specialize in something. People don't doesn't get really happy when you say I do this and I do this.
Kathryn: This is true!
Cristian: And I like this and I like this and I like this. So they tend to think that you are not focused. And this happens a lot in science. If you are not just in the lab working 24/7 then you're not focused and probably you will not have an academic career. I don't know how it is in the side of the arts. I have the impression that they have more freedom to just explore different things. And I think this is something I really like from them that we as scientists sometime have missed you know. It is fun to just explore to see what happens. So, so yeah, it was very conflicting in the sense that people were expecting me: ''Okay, you can do this now!', but I also like this. ''Oh, then you can do this'' yeah, but I also like that.
Kathryn: ''Yes but then I'm gonna miss the first part!''
Cristian: Exactly. So and since I was a kid, I was I was doing both things. So I would like be super interested in taxonomy, you know, in the name of animals and dinosaurs, like all the kids. And flowers and at the same time, I was collecting books to do like little artworks. I also remember I did when I was really really young, a little exhibition in my room. Which was putting things on the walls and of course it was a mess.
Kathryn: Who came to your exhibition? Just your mom?
Cristian: I'd say it was just me. My mom...
Kathryn:...came to tell you to clean up your mess. That's true, though, I guess somewhere in terms of the way society sees art and science and that sort of thing, somewhere along the lines, we've really separate. You definitely get told that you're less focused or you get the impression that people think you're less focused if you do art stuff.
Cristian: Well, that's true. Like, I don't know until what extent is people telling you something or you think something? I see its like, there is this conception between senior scientists and they will like, tell you to focus or what more they will never tell you stop or abandon these kind of things. But the way that the push goes, and I think it's understandable. But I do think also that is necessary to change I think society today does need people that are specialized for things, but also does need a lot of people that are able to bridge, you know, construct bridges between a lot of disciplines. Because, yeah, the solution that we need today require people that is able to contact different parts of the society and make them work together because we are in an extremely diverse society today.
Kathryn: Yeah, that's true. Yeah. And that actually kind of touches on something else that I wanted to talk about. So the idea that, you know, science is totally separate from art is definitely changing. And that's a good thing. I wanted to ask you, how do you think your history with art and your art practice improves or contributes to the way that you do science or the way that you think about science
Cristian: I see it contributing sense.... as remember they say before that in art, you feel like you're more allowed to explore and to play more?
Cristian: I feel with science, I feel that it contributes to my practice of science in the sense that I can step out of the box. I can go a look, you know at other type of research, I see a lot of colleagues that are just focusing in one type. Like if you do neuroscience, we just focus in that subject of neuroscience and you never look maybe you know, biology, you know, plant biology or other types of animal biology many examples of things that you didn't consider that could help actually to improve your own research, to contribute to answers to what you're trying to look for.
Kathryn: It's true, it's kind of paradoxical, right? When you think about it, again, back to this whole idea that you have to be really super focused, but like some of the most celebrated advancements in science come when people think outside the box and look to other areas, right? Like if you think of CRISPR even that we can use in all of these human studies and animal studies and cells and all of this, but it came from microbiology, they use it in neuroscience and everything now.
Cristian: And this happens pretty often. If you think about the exonucleases, they come from bacteria to defend themselves from viruses.
Kathryn: Like evolutionary biology and we can take advantage of it.
Cristian: RNA interference comes from plants and also is a mechanism of the defense. So I think we should be more attentive to this kind of crossovers, especially in different areas like of science or engineer like we always we like to talk about, you know, collaboration and cross-disciplinary collaborations. But we don't do too many of those.
Cristian: And the biggest advances that you will see in the scientific world always have to do when you start to bridge two areas. When you bring I don't know, for example, in the case of biophysics, you bring engineers, you bring physicists. And you start to form question that just using your tool kit, you will not be able to solve. You need the expertise of other people.
Kathryn: Yeah. So it's really a team sport.
Cristian: I see exactly. I seen the same thing happen in the case of neuroscience. If you want to solve problems with neuroscience you will need at some point, you know, to open to other areas that have all type of knowledge that can contribute to what you are missing.
Kathryn: Yeah. And even graphic design too. So back to that the use of graphic design for science. I think it's a hugely underused potential. I know for me like, the more I started to kind of push the barriers or even, you know, present a poster at a conference or I do a presentation. I'm like, do we really got to put boxes here. Can we make this into circles instead? And what happens with you know, what if I change the colors like what if I don't have a blue poster with a white background? I think it has huge potential.
Cristian: Yes. Yeah. That's another thing, right?
Kathryn: I can only imagine what your posters look like.
Cristian: Well you know my posters are pretty clean in general. I hate boxes.
Kathryn: That's good! That's again from a graphic science point of view.
Cristian: Yes, yes. I hate I hate boxes. I hate too much text in posters. So I mean, I hate also these types of scientific images that are so complex, per se that they have so many axes.
Kathryn: Yes like 14 layers of data.
Cristian: Yeah. And you can't understand anything and what you see. I think we should be able to communicate and give a clear take-home message right away in the poster and if the person wants to know more... well, that's supposed to… it is a poster session, you are there to explain and talk, so it should happen that then you will have a conversation but you should be able to attract the person with your poster somehow. And it will be of great benefit for scientists in general like to have more knowledge in you know, crafting this.
Kathryn: Honestly. Yeah.
Cristian: Which typographic you should never use. Please stop to use Comic Sans. I mean, I see if you look in comics today, comics don't use Comic Sans. They use all type of typography. And they play along with combinations of that. Totally different.
Kathryn: Yeah. Graphic design is something I wish I had more formal training. As a scientist. I think we can all benefit from that for sure.
For sure. I do think so too, we're talking here just to communicate with your peers.
Cristian: But imagine when you try to communicate your science now outside.
Cristian: When you want to bring all this complexity that you have been working for years to the public. And then you give these typical talk where you bring a brain and then you talk with the people and the people are just focusing the brain and not on anything that you say. You basically don't give any information to the people, it's time for scientists to understand that the traditional way that we're doing we're using to communicate science with people doesn't work.
Kathryn: And it doesn't even work within science!
Cristian: Well, that's the thing! That is funny because even between scientists, science communication and communication scientists and all. All these people that actually study this phenomenon, they say it doesn't work.
Kathryn: Yeah! But it's tradition. It's the accepted standard in the field.
Cristian: Yes. And there's a point here where we are just that that we are supposed to be the people that bring the innovation to the word, the discoveries, and we are all like dinosaurs. Structures that don't move and don't change. And they need to change, they need to change because the world changed already.
Kathryn: Yeah. It hasn't caught up yet.
Cristian: Exactly! And not putting attention in things that before were like traditional where you listen to them because it was a scientist telling us yeah, today, you know, we had to compete against social media. We have compete with all these amount of nonsense information in television where you know, all these things are there to entertain us and keep us busy from the real problems and the real things that happen around. It is not the mission of the public learn science.
Kathryn: No, no.
Cristian: And as a scientist also sometimes we forget that is part of our mission to communicate what we're doing.
Kathryn: Yeah, share what we're what up to, what we're finding.
Cristian: And the reason for that is and you will find scientists that will say no, my mission is to do science. No, if you don't share your science with people, then...
Kathryn: What is the point?
Cristian: ... people will not know what you're doing. And basically, this was translating people will not vote for policies that support science.
Kathryn: Yeah, exactly.
Cristian: And we will be based in a critical problem of no funds.
Kathryn: No jobs.
Cristian: No jobs! And this class equality will go down too because if you don't share the knowledge, then people don't have this possibility to know more things and aim for a better future.
Kathryn: Yeah, I mean at the end of the day, we do science to discover things about our world and about us as people and all this but it still has to benefit somebody. We do science for the sake of knowledge, but it's the public knowledge and if we can't get it out there then we're not really doing it.
Cristian: Let's do the science with public funds.
Kathryn: Also they pay for it so they deserve to know. ''They'' as if I don't pay taxes. I pay my taxes, I paid for it too! But actually this like online presence like social media, scientists engaging online there has been a definite increase in, especially in younger scientist, who share their science online and social media and tried to present a more human face to science.
Cristian: I have something to say about that!
Kathryn: Okay okay, yeah, what do you have to say about that?
Cristian: Actually, I have a theory about that. I don't think to do that every single scientist is doing that today.
Kathryn: It's definitely not!
Cristian: But I don't see several young scientists neither.
Cristian: I think that the people that are making the biggest effort to share the science are actually communities that have less equality. I think that women are doing this, I have seen the racial minorities are doing this is as if the people is doing this. I don't think you know that the most comfortable part of our society is doing it because they are comfortable. So they don't have this need to get this information out because they don't suffer from the inequality. So for them it's not a problem if they don't get a job maybe they will get a job in another thing.
Kathryn: It will happen soon enough.
Cristian: Exactly, so I do think that the people that and I really when they see that and start to research about these
Kathryn: I am sure people are starting and if not...
Cristian: Yeah, actually seen there was something about that. It was a controversy with this lady that was in Instagram. She was showing the stuff that she was doing her lab. And then did appeared a commentary in Science Magazine. And it was like pretty bad against her like, she was kind of like a just showing off and not really doing science. And then a lot of people came to her defense, which I think that was awesome, saying that actually, she was doing a big effort to show science and to try to make it more popular for people. And then in that there was some statistics saying that actually, minorities are doing the job of science communication. So what happened with people that are more established, and I'm talking now talking, you know, PIs and stuff, they will support it, which I think is really cool. They're changing, that they're supporting they are giving more space for the students to do it. But ultimately, the students that will do it are actually the students that have less opportunities in the future.
Kathryn: The one that are seeing/feeling the problem.
Cristian: Yes, exactly that they feel the problem that they feel the need to change things. So I don't think the people that are comfortable do it. I think that its people that are more in the challenge of what I will do after this.
Kathryn: Yeah, fair enough. On that note, speaking on the need to change things.
Kathryn: Convergence. Let's talk about that. Let's talk about this science and art initiative. Where did convergence come from?
Cristian: Convergence came exactly from the same need. So as I was just mentioning before, I finished my PhD in 2009. Then I did my postdoc for four or five years here in Canada. And the perspective of how a job didn't change too much from the from the moment when I started my postdoc. So we can attribute this to many things. Maybe I was not, you know, maybe it didn't work enough. Maybe I'm not as smart.
Kathryn: I'm sure it was you.
Cristian: Maybe yeah, maybe. Maybe it was me. But the fact is like today to get a job in science you need to apply with 300 people and all of them will have probably better CV than you. And the requirements for job will be like you have to have papers in all these important magazines. But you should know how to drive a space shuttle and operate the International Space Station.
Kathryn: Also, you should only be able to live on two hours sleep a night with this grant money.
Cristian: Of course. So, I was in that situation in 2014-2015. Plus thanks Canada and the winter in Canada I was like having my suffering of every winter. And I was like asking well, what am I going to do with my life where am I going with this. And at the same time, I was realizing that all my comments about how science is being delivered and how the world is going were through Facebook. So I was basically, you know, an internet warrior like... Yes! no! I don't like this. Yes, I like this! I know it was all mine, you know, social involvement in change the world so I thought that was really bad. And then I went to a conference the Canadian Association for Neuroscience. That year I think it was in Toronto, and then they start to establish this award for people who were doing outreach.
Cristian: And together with that was, of course, the people that was doing the outreach, and they were like, you know, talking in the conference. And it was pretty young people doing extremely amazing things.
Kathryn: Oh, yeah.
Cristian: So they were doing change by doing things. They were not just posting the internet or just comment or being upset about something, they were actually doing something. And, and I told like, why I was there complaining instead of doing something. So I come back from the conference. And then I thought, what, what I could do, and one of the things I always wanting to do was create some kind of series of conference or tours where I could bring science, you know, to the public. To make these complex subjects to the public, something that people would go like a real conference. Yeah, but for the public,
Kathryn: But free, no barriers to access.
Cristian: Exactly, and people will go and just listen this amazing talks in neuroscience, biology and whatever topic that will be just super interesting for them. They could experience like what we experience in conferences but you know, in a really, really friendly good way. Without being you know, like ''Yeah! Here is the science. Let's do this experiment! Liquid blue with liquid red *poof* explode.'' Something really like, interesting that they could really be amazed. We are a mixed. So I thought, well, what could I start that could derive some pointers on something like this, where I can talk with people. And then it came the fact that I was missing so much doing graphic design. And I thought, well, maybe they could be a good story, you know, between things that people do in the arts in graphic design, with science, maybe we could, I don't know, put people together to work and share information. And this was always part of the dream, like, facilitate scientists and artists to work together without being paternalist, one over the other. So without being the scientist like ''This is my information. I will teach you something very important.'' Just listen.
Cristian: That is a like you don't have passion. Let me teach you passion.
Cristian: You know, this is stupid stereotypes.
Kathryn: Yeah, yeah.
Cristian: And the first iteration of Convergence is totally that. And I was lucky enough to have people around that listened to my crazy idea and jumped in the boat. And I guess I'm pushy enough to convince people to do things. So we caught people from the Brain Program, people from the Canadian Association for Neuroscience was supporting the initiative and they still do. And then I wrote to the Dean of the Faculty Fine Arts here in Concordia and their response was just fantastic. So they jump in and we had a meeting with her, Rebecca Duclos, with the Chair of the Department of Design and Computational Arts, Pk Langshaw, and then we bring the director of the brain program, and we all thought together and we thought, well, let's do something. A couple months later, we were already doing conferences. And three or four months later, we started a course in Concordia.
Kathryn: That's how fast it went.
Cristian: That was really fast!
Cristian: Really fast. But that, of course is the you know, the common effort of many people to do a course is because people here in Concordia were really moving. And they liked the idea. And we experimented that year with a course.
Kathryn: So you had all of these different people and all these different places that were excited about it and had this kind of underlying like, yeah, you know, urban science that could be cool, but then you showed up with a bit of a catalyst brought together and then this whole thing.
Cristian: I guess that's kind of what happened... So I get pretty often now I'm not sure anymore if it's something good or something bad. People tell me like ''I love your enthusiasm but...'' which means usually like, okay, yes, this is too much energy.
Kathryn: sounds like
Cristian: Yes, let's, let's put you down a little bit. Calm down. And let's see how we can solve this but so far it has worked so...
Kathryn: I mean obviously yeah. So now you have Convergence has so many people working on it. Can you talk about some of the projects that are happening?
Cristian: Yes. So well, that's I think this is the most important part of this. I cannot do this thing alone.
Cristian: So Convergence today is no just me. Convergence is all these people doing work. We have a board of directors, a wonderful colleague working with me as a vice president, Bettina Forget. She is master in Art Education; she is doing her PhD right now in Art Education. She brings all these powerful tools related with education and art to complement what we do in science. And then we have all these amazing people, you are between those people, doing amazing things. So we have many projects running right now and we have many projects synched to run in the future. So right now we have the main column that is still working there is the class.
Cristian: So we have now, it started as a one semester class. Now, it's a complete year class.
Kathryn: Maybe explain a little bit like what the class actually is. What are we talking about we say class?
Cristian: So the classes as I say it's a full year program where we get registration from the students from Neuroscience from McGill. Most of them from the Integrative Program Neuroscience from IPN McGill.
Kathryn: Yeah. So like Masters and PhD.
Cristian: And they belong also to the Brain Program. And then this year we opened the program for some other students from McGill. We got some students from psychology. We got even a student from experimental medicine. We are very happy about that. We are starting to open this opportunity for other people. So our science students come from McGill in general and the Brain Program of the research institute. Then, we get our Fine Art students and the Design and Computational Arts students from Concordia. The program is right now running in the department of Design and Computational Arts but it is opened for everybody in Concordia. So for example this year, we have dancers, people from theater, people from fibers, people from design, from computational arts, people from painting and art education. So every year the students change. The idea is that this two groups of people meet in the class and what we do in the class is that we have modules related to neuroscience and modules related to art. Since we don't want to teach you neuroscience and to teach art, we put all of these together in one class. Our class usually has a component that is neuroscience and helps us to just make a common language of what we will be talking about during the second part of the class. The goal is to understand our work and what is art and all the variation that it has, what the design is and all the variation that it has. So our classes go with all of our students together and the point of the first semester is that they get all this set of tools and skills to be able to create a piece of fine art in the second semester.
Kathryn: Okay so it’s like basic fluency in neuroscience and art for both groups together.
Cristian: Exactly. So most of what we encourage a lot is this interaction between them so conversation things that happen a lot of is that we have a lot of conversations and stuff where we debate ideas, where we talk about concepts.
Cristian: We criticize science, we criticize art. Criticism in the sense of like, we want to improve the things.
Cristian: So learn how they are with we don't put any of those disciplines on a pedestal we just talk very frankly about how did they developed whether they had on whether they are missing seen that they are there for humanity and then with all these together, so we have debates we have a night presentation, we have responses to the classes in the form of art or in the form of science communication because we also teach science communication for our neuroscience students. So at the end, we hope that naturally they come together to create little teams that will work basing it in the science of the team to create that piece of art.
Kathryn: Yeah. So when you say it like on paper, and it's daunting, you have these two groups of people who have come up with an entirely segregated education and experience for the most part in terms of their academic life. And you basically throw them in a room and hope that they stick to each other in some way. Well, again, sounds terrible on paper so terrible.
Cristian: At the beginning, people have the sensation to like, they really look each other like, you know, two types of chickens.
Kathryn: Like a whole different entity.
Cristian: And then, soon enough, where the classes start, and we start to talk about particular topics, people start to realize that the same topics affect artist and also scientists. Like for example, we just go to the fact of grant. How you get your money to do things?
Kathryn: What do you do with your degree?
Kathryn: Or what you do with the professional artists and the professional scientists look like?
Cristian: Yeah, exactly. And you start to get that all these things are parallels and they look pretty much like the same thing. Both use methods to explore questions about the world, about nature. And in some point you just realize that you're just like a type of researcher they just use these set of skills and there are others these type of researchers that use different set of skill. But both of them are researching questions about the world and for me the best part about this is that both sides start to appreciate a lot what the other group do.
Cristian: And this demystifies completely what the other group do. So it's not any more like ''all the artists'' or ''all the scientists. And now it's more like ''oh yeah my friend the scientists or the artists'' or even not anymore 'the scientist' or 'the artist', my friend, you know, just the name and this is fantastic. I think this is really what these collaborations are meant to be. So destroy these stereotypes, once you destroy these stereotypes and you give respect between the two groups, now is easy to communicate that respect to other groups, which is the public side. We want to run it there.
Kathryn: And once you break down those barriers, you can make something together. That's kind of amazing. So that's the second half of the class. Right?