Back to school….

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I’m in quiet contemplation mode. Nearly a year in to a Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellowship and I am at that stage where I can feel the need to break from the old and step into a new and different world. There are a few things that just haven’t been working for me (the whole desk/ office situation) and some new things that I have really enjoyed that I need to do more of or at the very least spend a lot more time on. There is some stuff I need to say no to, stop feeling guilty about and be more critical of and there are some things that I need to stop doing or do differently.

So it’s timely I guess that today I am going back to school. Not my old school or any school but the highly creative Thomas Tallis in South London. Fortunately I am not going on my own – I was invited by @Profhelenstorey & @CarolineHSF to a staff conference to catalyse learning around their Catalytic Clothing and Field of Jeans exhibition (that I fell in love with at Manchester Science Festival when they were installed in the Turing’s Sunflower boxes last year or so). The Field of Jeans are currently installed at the school, so looking forward to seeing them again.

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To prepare for this we have been given some questions about learning by Jon Nicholls (Director of Arts, Creativity & Communications at Thomas Tallis) for a morning discussion (that starts at 8.30am!!! – I am not a morning person – I will have to do lots of smiling and drink lots of peppermint tea). For the questions I have been thinking about lots of stories and also reflecting on Helen storey’s work and my personal connection to it.

I first encountered Helen’s work in the form of Primitive Streak exhibited at the Cornerhouse in Manchester. Primitive Streak is a collaboration between Helen and her biologist sister, Kate. I was studying of a PhD in Neuroscience at the time and used to head to Cornerhouse to watch movies, often several afternoons a week. Sometimes two movies back to back. And one day there were these amazing dresses in Cornerhouse gallery.

I still have a real passion for embryonic development. As developmental biologist, Lewis Wolpert said “it’s not birth, marriage or death, but gastrulation which is truly the most important time in your life’. And at the time I believed it! Gastrulation is a stage in embryonic development reorganizes the embryo into three distinct layers – ectoderm (outer layer), mesoderm (middle layer) and endoderm (inner layer). From these layers, tissues and organs arise. As part of this, a line of cells know as the primitive streak takes form.

I remember being utterly mesmerised and inspired to see Primitive Streak, a fusion of art and science in a series of dresses celebrating the first 1000 hours of life. It certainly was a catalytic moment – scientists and artists – indeed sisters can collaborate to make work shown in a gallery?! My own sister is incredibly talented artistically and definitely the inspiration behind my drive to collaborate with artists. I always felt there was something missing in just doing lab science.

Years later and I feel like I am on the cusp of something new and speculative. I started this journey with the notion of citizens doing science – I think there is much greater value in looking at the crossover of using sci-art-outreach as a form of research in the wild. Where the cultural or situation of everyday life is somehow accounted for and present. Where feelings, attachments and relationships are recognised in the culture of doing the work.

A trip to the RCA’s open day today and seeing what students are getting upto there has confirmed this idea of disciplines converging with one another – I think for too long they have been drawn apart – a dramatic tension who’s unification is long overdue. I have being using culture as a starting point – food, gardening, music – now I am interested in looking at how biology might contribute to thinking about the cultural phenomena I am interested in – mass collaboration – and what interesting lessons can be learned there.

There is a mad drumming experiment I want to do & an experiment in mass collaboration I want to replicate & a baby book I want to write and several apps to deploy. Did i mention I want to conduct an orchestra and make a film about a volcano?

So much to do, and so little time! A big thank you to the stepping stones that got me to this point and hello speculative future – I feel you breathing down my neck and you have my full attention.

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