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Dancing, sand art and science: Communication by art-y means

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Photo of Shelly Xie

Shelly Xie getting ready to perform at PAHO, 2 October 2013

There’s something wonderful about those art forms that can bypass our adult selves and touch the child inside us. Sand art has that in spades. Its family members include building sand castles, but the kind I mean here is live performance art.

It’s better to experience it than read an explanation of it. The first performance I ever saw was the remarkable Kseiya Simonova’s astonishing and moving tour de force in a talent show video that went viral. Just…wow.

A story told in the dark to an audience, a narrator’s voice, music – and the sheer wonder of seeing recognizable images emerge from talented fingers and trickles of sand on a lightbox, projected and magnified. It’s kind of an electronic mashup of drawing in the dirt or sand and a shadow play. It’s magic.

But who would think of using that for science communication?

Well, 24-year-old medical student Shelly Mingqian Xie, for one. Born in China, raised in Japan, Xie tells how she came to practise this art while doing medical research at Stanford, and shows a video performance here.

She comes to her medical studies after a major in biology and a minor in creative writing. It was while working with patients, though, that she “found the power of art in communication,” she said today. “I always loved art and science…and didn’t know why I had to choose one or the other.”

Photo of sand art

Shelly Xie's sand art performance at PAHO

Xie gave her premier performance of two new stories on the impact of diseases and medical research on individuals and communities, in Washington DC at the headquarters of PAHO, the Pan American Health Organization (regional branch for the Americas of WHO). She’s collaborating with PAHO to communicate complex stories about disease, medicine, research and development.

The two stories? One on hookworm and one on Chagas disease – brutal parasitic diseases closely entwined with poverty and public health, that affection hundreds of millions people worldwide. You can watch hookworm in English and Spanish, and Chagas disease in English and Spanish.

Along to Antonio Pinto’s soundtrack from the movie, Love in the Time of Cholera, she makes an informative narration of one family – “There’s a small village in eastern Brazil…” “Every part of his body that touches the soil begins to itch” – flow out into a clear and riveting depiction of the social determinants of health and the role of research and public health measures in development.

Elsa Moreno, 1952 continua: from the PAHO exhibit, Shaping our world

This is not the first time that PAHO has committed acts of art in the service of science communication. Their program, Art for Research, works with artists to communicate the way health research contributes to health and is a driver of human development. The photo on the left comes from their exhibit on how health research helps shape our world.

If you’re waiting for the dancing promised in the title to start, that went onto YouTube last week, thanks to the British Psychological Society (BPS). Statistics – surprise, surprise! – is a major bugbear for psychology students.

So they funded a project, Dancing Statistics, that aims to reduce students’ resistance to statistics, and help make them comfortable with key statistical concepts. There are 4 short films now on YouTube – in this one, variables dressed in red and black explain correlation. Cue the dancers!

Photo of dancing statistics

Dancing statistics - "Correlation"

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If Dancing Statistics gets you in the mood for more “statistics lite,” and you’re prepared to go from the sublime to the ridiculous, check out my cartoon blog, Statistically Funny.

I took the photos today at PAHO’s Washington DC headquarters. (Many thanks to Luis Gabriel Cuervo from PAHO.)

Original artwork of Dr Elsa Moreno by Theo Chalmers, for OPS 2011, from the exhibit, Shaping the world: How health research shaped our world.

The thoughts Hilda Bastian expresses here at Absolutely Maybe are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Hilda Bastian About the Author: Hilda Bastian likes thinking about bias, uncertainty and how we come to know all sorts of thing. Her day job is making clinical effectiveness research accessible. And she explores the limitless comedic potential of clinical epidemiology at her cartoon blog, Statistically Funny. Follow on Twitter @hildabast.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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