A brunette woman wearing a red/white striped dress sits with two children, one boy and one girl. Colored drawings cover the floor and there is a camera and microphone present.
Researcher Vanessa Diaz (center) in a “Draw A Scientist” research session with two children.

“Draw a scientist” is a standard instruction issued by developmental psychologist Vanessa Diaz when she interviews kids in her research on how children develop ideas around gender and who can be a scientist.

    Now “Draw a scientist!” is also a recurring line in a poem by Erika Meitner and a musical composition by Charles Nichols that debuted May 2nd as part of the School of Performing Arts’ New Music + Technology Festival. “In the Burrow of Science” was performed in the recital salon at Squires Student Center by Ariana Wyatt, soprano; John Irrera, violin; Ben Wyatt, cello; and Annie Stevens, marimba.

    You can find a video recording of the debut performance, along with Meitner’s full poem, on YouTube.

    “In the Burrow of Science” is the outcome of a Center for Communicating Science SciArt collaboration about the artistic exploration of childhood cognitive development. Formed during a Center for Communicating Science day-long “collaboration incubator” in May of 2021, the group of collaborators includes Dr. Vanessa Diaz, research assistant professor of psychology; Zach Duer, visual artist and assistant professor of creative technologies in the School of Visual Arts; Erika Meitner, poet and associate professor of English; Dr. Charles Nichols, composer, computer music researcher, and associate professor in the School of Performing Arts; and Ariana Wyatt, opera singer and associate professor of voice in the School of Performing Arts.

    Their collaboration covers a broad artistic scope, but it had humble beginnings: stories of childhood. Diaz and Nichols connected during the SciArt collaboration incubator by talking about their childhoods, Nichols about being a 5-year-old violin student and Diaz about her time growing up in a different country. This sharing of childhood stories gave Diaz and Nichols a connection that ultimately led to the creation of this collaboration.


This photo shows a stage with four musicians on it, as described in caption. Behind them is a screen showing children's hands and arms painting.
The May 2 world premiere of "In the Borrow of Science," with (from left) John Irrera, violin; Ariana Wyatt, soprano; Ben Wyatt, cello; and Annie Stevens, marimba. Screenshot from YouTube video.

    Trust — and the connection formed during the collaboration incubator — was especially important when involving others in the collaboration, the researchers said. Nichols had worked with all but Diaz in the past, allowing him to trust them enough to involve them in a new collaboration. Diaz trusted Nichols to allow these artists with whom she had never worked to be involved.

    The collaborative project began with Diaz doing a recorded interview with children about who and what scientists are, similar to research interviews she often conducts. While the children were answering her questions, they were also drawing pictures of their answers. Duer then gave these pictures to his own children and invited them to create art over top of it. He recorded his children doing their art and used the original interview recording over the recording of his children to create “floating memories of that original recording session.”

    Meitner and Nichols used the audio and transcripts from the first recording session, Diaz’s interviews with the children, to write observational poetry and compose music.

    “[Meitner’s] organization of words and her sense of rhythm is so fun to work with,” Nichols commented. “What I like so much about this poem and why I picked it to set is because it’s so joyful.”

    While research interviews, video, poetry, and music may seem disconnected, the collaborators found common themes. Duer talked about the challenges of “keeping 5- and 7-year-olds on task,” something he is familiar with in his own family and that he saw in action as he recorded his children making art on top of the “draw a scientist” artwork. Meitner noticed the same thing when listening to the original recording: “What was interesting about the transcriptions I made was the discursiveness of the sessions and how hard it was for Vanessa [Diaz] to keep the kids on task for the research.”

    The title of Nichols’ musical composition, “In the Burrow of Science,” is a line from one of Meitner’s poems—and something that one of the children said during the research interview as they drew their scientists: “She found this strange-looking burrow, and it was pink inside the burrow of science.”

    Keeping her research subjects on task is something Diaz has to do constantly when interviewing them, but this collaboration allowed her to lean more into the discursiveness than she might in a more formal research study, she said. That allowed her to expand her ideas about research.

    One of the things she noticed during the recording session, for example, was that the children were fascinated more by the environment they were recording in than the questions being asked. Normally, “you want [them] to forget that they’re being recorded,” but for these children the microphone was fascinating and was one of the things they remembered most, she said.

    This discursiveness is something that Diaz wants to bring more into her psychology research in the future. She and Nichols also want to show the works that come from this collaboration to psychologists. They want to show them that there are other ways to do — and to present — psychological research.

By RJ Loyd, Center for Communicating Science student intern