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WID grant program to explore intersection of arts, sciences

September 22, 2011 By Chris Barncard

John Yin plays the cello in his off-hours and was enrolled in Columbia’s great books program while earning his chemical engineering degree, so maybe it’s natural that the leader of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery’s Systems Biology theme hopes to tap the humanist’s perspective to advance lab science.

“The idea is that we’d form a community of humanists here at WID in an attempt to explore together this intersection between art and humanities and science,” says Yin, a professor of chemical and biological engineering who is now accepting proposals for $2,500 Emerging Interfaces awards that would draw graduate-level students from arts, humanities, social sciences and education departments to the institute during the spring 2012 semester.

Interplay between arts and sciences has always been part of the Institute’s goals, and Yin would argue that the two are kindred disciplines.

“Discovery shouldn’t be limited to science. It’s something we all do as humans,” he says. “This creative endeavor we practice — science — isn’t unique. There are other fields that are also trying to push frontiers in their own way.”

It may, however, be pushing scientists’ comfort zones to suggest they pay more attention to their humanist colleagues.

“A scientist may look at this and say, ‘I don’t see how this is going to help me get my next grant or my next study published,’” Yin says. “But if you can grasp how people think of problems in a different way, and how you might apply different approaches to solving your research problems? Then you’ve got scientists saying, ‘I’ve gotta get more humanists involved in my lab!’”

The Emerging Interfaces Awards aim to draw 10-12 students with a stipend and desk space in WID labs during the spring. Winners would be tasked with completing a project exploring the intersection between the particular discipline and science — with particular interest in the WID focus areas of bioscience, nanoscience and information science and technology.

Emerging Interfaces participants would also be charged with producing an event at WID to bring the university community and the public in on the Interface experience.

“If we’ve got a grad student here from a department on campus that isn’t otherwise represented in WID, the people from that department may better appreciate our work if they get a look at it through the eyes of someone who understands their perspective,” Yin says. “Understanding our different perspectives could be mutually beneficial.”

Just how to bridge that gap, Yin says, is a question open to applicants’ creativity.

“I’m not asking them to open new fields, just to get us to think differently,” he says. “If science can inspire music or dance or poetry, maybe we can understand how music and dance and poetry can inspire science. I wouldn’t be surprised if a pathway exists.”

Proposals for Emerging Interfaces grants must be received by Oct. 15. For more information on applying, visit the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery website.