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Scientist or artist?

Paintings by Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova Cartoon by Kennedy Powers  


When I was younger I loved dancing, painting, and playing piano, but most of all, I treasured learning. When I was not doing homework, my evenings and weekends were consumed by painting, music, as well as ballet, jazz, contemporary, and tap dance lessons. It was obvious to me and to everybody in the small village where I grew up that one day I would become an artist!

Then, in high school, I was introduced to the world of science, more specifically to chemistry, a topic that most of my friends did not like in the least, but that totally fascinated me. The wonder of how atoms could get together in a multitude of ways to create life and cure diseases became a new passion of mine. However, with this newly found passion came a profound dilemma. What would I do for the rest of my life? What career path would I follow? Would I become an artist -- my childhood dream -- or a scientist?

The apparent conflict between these two career paths troubled me deeply. Nobody, including myself, could help me reconcile what seemed to be a world of differences. How could I choose one lifestyle over the other? How could I abandon the world of beauty as well as freedom of creativity and expression that art offered me to become a scientist? How could I let go of the possibility that science offered me of making new discoveries and understanding how nature functions, to become an artist?

My time in high school was approaching an end and I had to make a decision (of course, it is never too late to follow your passion in life, and I understand that very well now. However, at that time, I needed to make a decision for my next step). After countless hours of soul-searching and weighing the pros and cons of each career option, I came to a resolution:

I would become an artist… I would become a medicinal chemist!

Now, that might seem silly and indecisive to those who do not consider themselves artistic scientists, but it made total sense to me then, and 30 years or so later, makes even more sense.

Let me explain. I believe that all scientists, whether they realize it or not, are artists, as both disciplines require:

Creativity/Imagination: To be an artist, one has to be creative and imaginative and produce beauty out of raw materials (e.g., painters use blank canvas, colors, and brushes to create chef-d’oeuvres; sculptors form beautiful and inspiring pieces out of a variety of materials, some create masterpieces out of wood logs and chain saws; fashion designers design couture from unique fabrics and interesting patterns; musicians compose melodies from the alphabet of music; poets invent impactful stories out of simple words, etc.). Scientists, regardless of their field of research, need to be creative to come up with new ways to understand the intricacies of the world (e.g., chemists have to be creative in the way that they mix molecules to create new chemical matter; biochemists can create enzymes with new functions by manipulating DNA, etc.).

Inspiration: Both artists and scientists are inspired by what surrounds them: particularly by people and nature. People can inspire musicians to write new songs, painters and photographers to create beautiful images, dancers to combine movements into intricate choreographies, etc. People can also inspire scientists to work on understanding and combating various diseases or create new technologies to meet the needs of those they love/care about. Similarly, nature offers the beauty that inspires artists, and the puzzles that intrigue scientists.

Perseverance: Artists and scientists alike spend countless hours working on their craft, and have to persevere through the failed attempts, the days where inspiration is lacking, and many rejections and critiques of their work. Without perseverance, one cannot be an artist or a scientist.

Dedication/Passion: Not only does it take perseverance to be an artist or a scientist, it also takes dedication and passion. Without a love to create and a passion to make the world a better and more beautiful place to live, artists and scientists could not do what they do.

Since my first foray in the study of chemistry, I have expanded my love of science to biochemistry and microbiology. How nature produces molecules that can cure diseases is still something I am trying to understand and that I am sure will captivate me for the rest of my life. My analogy not only applies to medicinal chemistry. It applies to all fields of science.

For all of those who are trying to decide if you want to be an artist or a scientist, just like I did when I was a teenager, I ask: why not become both? Express your creativity in your favorite field of science or express your love of science in your chosen art form. Become an artistic scientist or a scientific artist!

If you are interested in being both an artist and a scientist, please feel free to get in touch to discuss. I’d also love to hear from those who already engage in both art and science, as to how they do so and what advice they would give to those struggling to marry the two.


About Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova


I am a medicinal chemist (associate professor) at the University of Kentucky. My research focuses on understanding and combating infectious diseases, particularly bacterial and fungal infections. I am also the founder of the SciCats (Science Cultivates Academically Talented Students) outreach program. I paint, play piano, and love to dance. You can follow me on Twitter at @GTsodikova.