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Scientific Snapshots

Five JMU seniors learned more than photography in their advanced photo class this semester. They also learned about DNA and the ethical implications of genetic advancements. One student called it an "intense" project.
By Brad Jenkins ('99)

Editor's note: In a speech regarding leadership in science, National Science Foundation Director Arden L. Bement Jr. commented, "I am often asked: "What keeps you awake at night?" My answer is: "The nation's continuing ability to compete in the global market." Scientific discovery, so crucial in today's competitive global market, increasingly requires individuals from different disciplines and perspectives to work together. It's the only way to solve the extraordinarily complex scientific challenges of our world. And, it calls for new approaches to education that will inform and inspire the next generation of innovators and explorers.

JMU is responding to the call in a yearlong series of integrated arts and sciences events focusing on the study of the genome. One of the events, a collaborative show by the JMU Fall 2010 Advanced Color Photography Class, features the work of five senior photography concentration students within the School of Art and Art History.

Dilemmas, ethics and art

When you step inside the Smith House's art gallery during January, be prepared to make a decision. Blonde hair or brown? Blue eyes or hazel? Go ahead, you can make your baby look exactly how you want.

The large photos of children's faces, each with different hair or eye possibilities, greets visitors to the gallery and offers a preview of the scientific subject matter on display in "Chromozone," the work of five JMU seniors.

For the past semester, the students in Corinne Diop's advanced color photography class have studied the basics of genetics and the subject's accompanying ethical dilemmas. It's one of numerous ways the university has brought together the arts and science this year during the "Dance of Art and Science."

"Our students are really open minded and took it as a challenge," says Diop, a professor of art. "Each person found their own way of connecting with it." Connecting their art to science required a good deal of outside work. The students read news articles, watched videos and studied the basics of DNA, the building block of life. They then used class time to discuss together they could turn the information into art.

"I didn't have any idea where to start," admits student Nabeela Hasan, whose colorfully abstract photos fill the back wall of the art space. "Science is not my thing. It's very technical and complex, and I had no idea how visually I saw it in my head."

So students had to think. A lot. The results explore the academic and the ethical.

Ali Hammond's large double-helix sculpture features close-ups of various body characteristics.

"The most distinguishing facet of a person is the face," she says, "so I wanted to focus on the face."

Logan Van Meter, the student whose photos of children greet visitors, focused on faces, too, but his aim was more ethical, looking at the possibilities of manipulatingf genes to give parents a child with certain characteristics. He had not given much thought to genetic engineering or the future of "designer babies" before the class.

"But I've spent all semester thinking about it," says Van Meter, who called the class "intense." "The show is extremely relevant to things we'll be hearing about in coming years."

What the show won't give viewers, though, are answers to genetic ethical dilemmas.

"It allows more questions than answers," Diop says. "There really isn't a moralistic stance. It isn't that simplistic. It's more looking at the possibilities. They took it and … make you think."

"Chromozone" is on display through Jan. 28 at the Art Council of the Valley. It is located at Smith House, 311 S. Main St., Harrisonburg. The gallery is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday.