Art and Science Connect

When the artist is also a scientific observer, the results can be breathtaking.

By Xiaoxin Yu 15C

Story Photo

Copyright Heidi Ma 2013

Who would expect an environmental scientist to be a brilliant artist? This summer in rural Bangladesh, artist Heidi Ma 13C investigated the habitat preferences of local fish species and worked towards ecological restoration in rural homesteads. Her art is revelatory.

Heidi Ma

Environmental artist Heidi Ma 13C gathers a crowd in Bangladesh.

“I am a visual learner and found that using sketches to communicate with farmers was the easiest and most interesting for them, especially because drawings can bridge all language barriers,” Ma explains. Ma’s artistic talent translated her research into beautiful sketches, which were compiled into a final report summarizing her summer fieldwork.

Though the Bangladesh internship is complete and Ma is now a graduate student in biodiversity conversation and management at The University of Oxford in England, her journey to meld science and art continues. “Today’s scientists must have multidisciplinary skills in order to reach citizens and influence policy. Sharing artwork is a great way of showing people around me why biodiversity matters and how humans and the biosphere are inseparable.”

The Artist Emerges

When she first expressed her interest in drawing at the age of 4, Ma’s parents supported her pursuit in art. “Neither of them are artists, but they believe in the positive influence of art in shaping and enhancing one’s personality,” she recalls. For eight years, Ma took private drawing lessons on a weekly basis. Even during her incredibly busy college years at Emory, Ma’s parents still encouraged her to continue her artistic practice and grow her unique artistic sense.

One may be surprised to find that majoring in environmental science had been a rather intuitive choice for this young artist. “The natural world has always offered me the most intellectual and artistic inspirations.” Native to Oregon, Ma shares an innate intimacy with nature. Growing up in cosmopolitan Beijing, China, she has also long been exposed to the clashes of different cultures and art expressions. In such humbling diversity, Ma discovered her own means of artistic expression.

Nurturing Creativity at Emory

Emory’s Department of Environmental Studies nurtured this fusion of natural inspiration and intellectual development within Ma. An encouraging place for artistic work, the department is filled with hidden artists. Ma collaborated with Dr. C Woody Hickcox, a senior lecturer who retired this year. The two completed a landscape-painting project, and the series was displayed in a meeting room in the department.

One of Ma’s favorite memories is that every Thursday, Dr. Hickcox would make waffles topped with maple syrup from his hometown Vermont for students and faculty during lunchtime. This strong sense of community within the department gave rise to countless precious moments and relationships.

Ma enjoyed mentorship by both Professor Lance Gunderson from the Department of Environmental Studies and Visual Arts Instructor Sarah Emerson. Both professors have generously supported her science/art pursuits both at Emory and beyond. “My relationship with Heidi Ma is very special to me. I wasn't always her instructor but over the years we were able to share so many wonderful conversations about artists, techniques, and the meaning of a creative life. She is the kind of person that always shows up one hundred percent.  Heidi's compassionate sensibility and driven spirit shows in the art work she creates and since she graduated I dearly miss seeing her working in the Painting and Drawing studio at Emory,” Emerson says.

Despite changes in Emory’s curriculum offerings, Ma understands that through change comes growth in artistic sense and aesthetic understanding. Her creative work space is papered with photos from her travels and field work, and from these she draws her inspiration. Now, as she studies the management, governance, and academic aspects of the environment, she reflects on her campus life at Emory and the nearby opportunities she enjoyed. As a nature lover, she suggests others students experience the natural world. “Visit Lullwater Preserve, go camping on Cumberland Island, or canoe in the Okefenokee Swamp over a weekend before graduation. Take notice of the beauty in nature.”

"Art and Science are very different ways of making sense of the world. Both involve a great deal of critical thinking, creativity, and diligence. Their combination came very naturally to me and that’s the beauty of these two areas of studies.” -- Heidi Ma

Xioaxin Yu is currently enrolled at Georgia Institute of Technology to study industrial engineering. To view more work by Heidi Ma, please visit our alumni blog The Post.

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Michelle Valigursky