As both scientist and artist, Seema Goel is intentionally unconventional.
Her childhood was anything but ordinary. Her parents were immigrants who came to Saskatchewan with $14 and both went on to become surgeons. When she was too young for school, Goel’s parents brought her to work with them.
“My first picture books were medical journals,” she remembers. “I would look at things like ulcers—they’re basically abstract paintings.”
When she did begin school, she describes herself as an outsider. “Then the most amazing thing happened. I went to a school of the arts for the summer…and I found out I was okay,” she says.
It’s not surprising that she earned a master of fine arts in sculpture and a bachelor of science in environmental biology, or that she is working on her master of science. This has qualified her for what is a nationally unique job. Goel is the only STEAM coordinator in Canada, and the artist-in-residence in the U of M Faculty of Science.
STEAM takes the STEM acronym (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and adds the A (Art). The idea began with academics in the United States.
Goel says rigid labs and the desire to be right can train science students to avoid risk. Art, she explains, inspires original thinking and allows them to engage with science creatively.
“If I go to a group of chemistry students and say, ‘Let’s do a STEAM project for Valentine’s Day about pheromones and perfume,’ they’ll suddenly be like, ‘Hey, yeah—that’s chemistry,’” says Goel. “They get to be an investigator and get to the fun part.”
She recently worked with Brendan Cordingley [BCSc(Hons)/17], a fifth-year computer science student, on an installation titled Flock Together. He programmed the code to animate images of birds on a wire that respond to viewers’ movement, provoking the audience to consider surveillance, information gathering and swarming behaviours.
Last summer, she worked with genetics, computer science and engineering students to create the piece Murmur (above). The team used local wool and willow to build pods approximately the size of a Neanderthal dwelling that purr when petted.
Throughout her career, Goel has created many bizarre and brilliant works—all strongly influenced by her perspective as a scientist. From Inuit sculptures made of Wonder Bread— critiquing the commodified relationship to the North—to taxidermied mice singing happy birthday to DNA, a commentary on our relationship with lab mice. She says her aim is to create learning experiences through art.
“It’s not the painting that’s the art; the art occurs between the object and the viewer.”