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Atomic energy Potent mix of chemistry and art expands minds across the disciplines
A head for science New formula aims to give every Skidmore student an edge
Scientific edge Alumni in science careers share experience and advice
Environmental problem-solvers Student club combines science and advocacy
President's perspective Science matters

 

 

Atomic energy
by Barbara Melville

Potent mix of chemistry and art expands minds across the disciplines

What makes Skidmore chemistry professor Ray Giguere tick? Easy answer: Molecules. Carbon-containing molecules, to be precise, the tiny titans of organic chemistry. “Although unimaginably small, molecules have immense influence,” he says. When scientists cracked the code of molecular structure in the twentieth century, the fruits of their labors “significantly redefined our world, and life itself.”

For the past twenty years Giguere has fired the imaginations of Skidmore students with the intensity of his own passion for organic molecules—their structure and variety, and the astonishing capacity that chemists have to tease apart and reassemble them into seemingly infinite new forms. But it wasn’t until Skidmore opened the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery in 2000 that Giguere found a classroom big enough—and dynamic enough—to teach the grandness of molecules as he sees them.

Giguere’s lifelong fascination with chemistry came literally as a gift, in the form of a chemistry set he received for Christmas when he was seven or eight. Growing up in a small hamlet in northern Michigan, Giguere eagerly set up a basement lab, did a bunch of experiments, even folded a few into a magic show for friends. He went on to earn a PhD in organic chemistry at the University of Hannover in Germany, and arrived at Skidmore in the late 1980s, where he became known as an enthusiastic teacher and research mentor. One of his favorite courses—a Liberal Studies class called “Playing Nature: Organic Synthesis and Society from 1900 to 1975”—was successful over the years with science majors and nonmajors alike. Last year he was named Skidmore’s Class of ’62 Term Professor.

When the new Tang Museum invited faculty to create their own exhibitions, Giguere wondered how his course might play in such a venue. Then he had a lightbulb moment of the artistic kind: If you supersized typical ball-and-stick models of molecules, they might read as interesting abstract sculptures. And if so, they could be spectacular, iconic highlights of a museum show about how our lives have changed as a result of our ability to harness and synthesize molecules.

Giguere joined forces with John Weber, the Tang’s Dayton Director, in a remarkable cross-disciplinary collaboration. Molecules That Matter opened last September and runs through April 13. (For more click here, and try the interactive component here). The show is a brain-teasing, audience-pleasing homage to ten major molecules that have affected life expectancy (penicillin), transportation (isooctane), and the natural environment (DDT); how and whether we reproduce (the Pill), how we cure headaches (aspirin) and the blues (Prozac); gazillions of consumer products (nylon, polyethylene); our knowledge of what we’re made of (DNA), and where we’re going—full tilt into nanotechnology (buckminsterfullerene and the other all-carbon molecules that opened up nanoscience).

Approach the main gallery and the first thing you see is the world’s biggest penicillin molecule—12 by 6 by 4 feet, and 2.5 billion times its actual size—soaring overhead. Its colorful plastic atoms, bigger than jumbo grapefruits, are linked by bonds of silvery aluminum. Below it is Jean Shin’s Chemical Balance 2, a startlingly beautiful sculpture made of hundreds of orange prescription-pill bottles, stacked in stalactite and stalagmite formations. Pertinent facts about the miracle drug’s discovery and development are delivered in wall texts and augmented with objects ranging from a fermentation jar used in the 1930s to grow precious penicillin mold to small, touchable penicillin models that demonstrate how nowadays adding just a few atoms can create a new antibiotic.

When Skidmore social-work professor Peter McCarthy visited the show in early fall, the penicillin display gave him a chance to bring home to his freshmen how vulnerable humankind once was to simple infections. He recounted how Notre Dame’s famous football star George (the Gipper) Gipp died in 1920 of strep throat. Then he asked, “Who here has had strep throat?” Several hands went up. “Without penicillin, you might not be here now,” he informed the suddenly sobered kids. It’s the kind of teaching moment McCarthy savors. He says, “Molecules That Matter is a very powerful exhibition, in a very disarming way. That to me is as good as it gets.”

Plenty of faculty agree. The Tang Museum was designed from the ground up to complement classroom, studio, and laboratory as “a space to interrogate ideas,” says Giguere. Its exhibitions are planned with academic tie-ins in mind; its flexible gallery walls and sightlines offer unexpected glimpses into adjoining exhibitions, alternate realities. As Dean of the Faculty Muriel Poston sums it up, “Students can see the intersection of disciplines in the Tang.” In fact they can walk through it as if it were a giant textbook bursting with living color, sound, and 3-D shape.

In the Tang’s first seven years, Skidmore faculty and students developed shows that dance across the disciplines—often with unexpected partners. For instance, A Very Liquid Heaven (2004) brought Skidmore professors Mary Crone Odekon (from physics) and Margo Mensing (from studio art) together with curator Ian Berry to present a multicentury look at how humans search the stars to understand the cosmos. Such shows mine faculty scholarship, then marry it to enticing elements like artworks, objects, documents, sound, videos, live music, dance, performance art, and more. Visitors to the Tang have encountered everything from Renaissance maps to gleaming black chunks of meteorite to Bozo the Clown’s bright-red wig.

Like its predecessors, Molecules is attracting faculty from many points on the liberal-arts spectrum. When Giguere organized a pre-exhibition “Molecules” symposium, half the participating faculty came from outside science, representing business, American studies, sociology, philosophy… an art historian even described African artisans weaving baskets from discarded plastic bags. Skidmore faculty wrote Molecules catalogue essays, recorded their comments for an audio podcast of “Molecule Memories,” and hosted a film series. An impressive 20 percent of faculty are likely to teach or assign coursework based on Tang shows each year, according to museum director Weber. Already history students have considered spices as “molecules that mattered to medieval Europe,” business students estimated molecules’ market values, and classics students set forth in search of “ancient molecules that matter.” Since Molecules related so neatly with the First-Year Experience reading of Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, virtually every freshman caught the show in the fall. And the Dunkerley Dialogue lecture by Nobel laureate Roald Hoffmann, who had consulted with Giguere and his science advisory board on the choice of molecules for the exhibition, drew a diverse, overflow audience.

So how does the Tang actually teach? Exercise scientist Paul Arciero suggests that its approach activates a mental process that lies “somewhere between philosophy and neuroscience.” (His students pored over artist Bryan Crockett’s Anger, Gluttony, and Sloth—exquisite, outsized marble sculptures of genetically engineered lab mice.) Arciero adds that the museum’s programming and architecture offer “multiple visual stimuli that trigger and tap into multiple intelligences.”

For the aesthetically triggered, Molecules includes a wealth of artworks. Fred Tomaselli’s elegant black wall work is pinstriped with hundreds of white aspirin tablets. Code of Arms, a witty collage suggesting what an artist’s DNA might look like, is “about romancing the science,” says its creator Michael Oatman. And the show’s mind-blowing abundance of artifacts appeals to everyone from toddlers on up: the red Pegasus of a vintage Mobil Gas sign, a “parachute dress” made of early Dupont nylon, an 1880s Persian saber (whose Damascus steel contains buckminsterfullerene), two plastic lawn flamingoes, and too many more to list. Whether the items are historical curios, exotica, or familiar objects, they “speak eloquently to us, without words,” says English and environmental-studies faculty member Alison Barnes.

“It’s exciting to see familiar things in a strange context,” notes English professor Michael Marx, whose first view of the Tupperware bowls in the polyethylene section gave him “a jolt of defamiliarization.” Shaking up existing neural pathways and forging exhilarating new ones seems to work even if science is your worst subject, as it is for Casey Gold ’11. “The mix of paintings, sculptures, animals, toys, cars, ads, and more not only entertained me,” she says, “but helped me relate to what I was supposed to be learning and made me actually want to pay attention.”

Attention, curiosity, excitement—these responses kick-start the learning process by providing “a speculative, creative, wide-ranging launching point for deeper exploration,” says Weber. Giguere trusted that such an entryway could make molecules accessible even to the most scientifically challenged, and indeed, the show “takes away any fear and anxiety about chemistry,” confirms Jessada Mahatthananchai ’09, a English and chemistry major who directs a squad of chemistry-student docents. “No matter what your field or phobia, Molecules lets you in.”

Exactly what Giguere wanted. His curatorial duties honorably discharged, he’s back in full teaching mode—and proudly sharing some particularly insightful student essays. There’s Stephanie Wein ‘10 on how isooctane led to “the phenomenon of suburbia, eight-lane ribbons of freeway across southern California, and the shrinking polar ice caps.” Or Emily Bruschi ’10: “Chemists have mastered the seemingly abstract study of molecular structure to the point that they can personally manipulate structures they have only seen in their mind’s eye…to create new and critical compounds.” And Josh Brahen ’09: “It’s about how a select ten molecules have changed humanity forever. More precisely, it’s about how humanity has changed itself by creating/discovering these molecules.” Giguere is delighted. “They’re getting it, they’re really getting it.” What more could you want from a teaching exhibition?

Well, maybe just a little more, suggests co-curator Weber. Before it goes on loan to other museums, he wants to videotape the Molecules installation and document it in dynamic 360-degree digital images to capture what it’s like to move through this big, lively show, feel its impact, and experience its juxtapositions and connections. If you take the exhibition’s catalogue as its textbook, this course-turned-exhibition could come full circle, in an online archive where Giguere’s homage to the beauty and power of organic chemistry might live virtually forever.

That would really make Ray Giguere tick.

To explore more about these molecules, Ray Giguere suggests these links.

Molecules That Matter was organized in partnership with the Chemical Heritage Foundation of Philadelphia, where it will be on exhibit beginning in August 2008 before touring to the College of Wooster, Baylor University, and Grinnell College. Funding for Molecules That Matter has been provided by The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, the Hach Scientific Foundation, Amgen, Friends of the Tang, Sara Lubin Schupf ’61, and donors to the Chemical Heritage Foundation.