With this post we introduce a new series on the SAS&M blog, in which we will interview people who write and sing science and math songs. To kick it off, we emailed the participants in the NIMBios Songwriter in Residence program. We hope you enjoy reading Kay Stanton’s thoughts below, as well as the profiles still to come!
SAS&M: DESCRIBE YOUR CURRENT WORK AS A SONGWRITER/MUSICIAN IN A SENTENCE.
SAS&M: TO WHAT EXTENT HAVE SCIENCE AND MATH BEEN IMPORTANT IN YOUR LIFE?
KS: My father is a retired biology professor, and some of my earliest memories are of going on field trips and hanging out in the lab with him. When I was 12, I dug up several crayfish at my elementary school, which turned out to be a species not known to live in the area. I got a mean case of poison ivy, but it was worth it. I enjoyed math and science in school and was involved in various clubs and activities throughout that time, including science fairs and competitions, but mostly I liked being out in it…learning by doing. In high school, I discovered how much math and art had in common (I’m also a visual artist–you can see some of my work here: http://www.casperfandango.com/okgallery.html). And that opened a lot of doors for me.
I started out studying biology in college, and added a fine art major…concentrating on biological illustration. I’m still fascinated by biology and always have my eyes on the ground looking for various critters.
SAS&M: WHAT FIRST PROMPTED YOU TO THINK THAT COMBINING SCIENCE/MATH AND MUSIC MIGHT BE A GOOD IDEA?
KS: To me music is math. I never played an instrument until I was 21 and the way that I learned was by numbers. It made much more sense to me that way. Even after several years, I find it much easier to understand if someone tells me an increment or tempo as a numerical value.
While most of my songs aren’t specifically on scientific topics, I find that science and nature imagery creeps into almost all of them. It’s so much a part of me that it would be impossible for it not to pop up over and over. Some are a little more obvious than others. My residency at NIMBioS was the first time I set out to specifically write about a scientific topic as a means to communicate it to a general audience.
SAS&M: WHAT SPECIAL CHALLENGED AND OPPORTUNITIES ARE THERE IN WRITING SCIENCE- AND MATH-BASED SONGS, AS OPPOSED TO WRITING, SAY, LOVE SONGS?
KS: First of all, science and math are subjects that many people don’t feel comfortable with, so it’s important to me to find a way to write a song that doesn’t sound like a lecture. When I was writing my NINBioS songs, I would sing them to my husband to see if they made sense to him. Sometimes they did; sometimes they didn’t. A lot of editing was involved. It’s definitely difficult to get a subject with so many facts condensed into a song, while keeping it understandable and interesting. I want to make sure I’m accurately representing the science end without making it too obtuse.
I think the opportunities for these types of songs are huge because not many people write about these subjects. Song is a fantastic way for people to learn (I know a few teachers who regularly work music into their lectures – and yes, my father has used some of my songs in his :).
SAS&M: HOW DID YOU SPEND YOUR TIME AS A NIMBIOS SONGWRITER IN RESIDENCE?
KS: I spent my time being a sponge…just trying to soak up as much of the information around me as I could. I directly interviewed some of the post-doctorates about their research, I sat in on workshops and tutorials, and I spoke with several visiting scientists. You’d be amazed what you can learn at the lunch table from this group! NIMBioS is a prime information gathering spot because there is constantly something going on!
SAS&M: WHAT WILL YOU REMEMBER MOST VIVIDLY FROM YOUR TIME AS A NIMBIOS SONGWRITER IN RESIDENCE?
KS: I think my most vivid memories of my time as a NIMBioS songwriter in residence may well be those lunchtime discussions.
SAS&M: DO YOU FEEL PARTICULARLY PROUD OF ANY PARTICULAR SCIENCE/MATH SONG THAT YOU’VE WRITTEN? WHY?
KS: Probably one of my favorite songs is one of the first I ever wrote: Little Lady Larva. I like that it’s about loving science or nature and that I managed a chorus made up of insect orders (Lepidotera, Hymenoptera, Coleoptera, Diptera). I’m also very excited about a rock song I’m in the process of writing on Toxoplasma gondii. I was inspired by one of the meetings at NIMBioS, and I think the subject is perfect for rock music.
SAS&M: WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE SCIENCE/MATH MUSICAL PIECE OR ARTIST, NOT INCLUDING YOUR OWN WORK? WHY?
KS: One of my favorite science/math artists is Robert Schneider of The Apples in Stereo. His songs are full of space and energy and he’s even mathematically devised his own non-Pythagorean scale: http://www.applesinstereo.com/pythagorean.php
Robert is an incredible mathematician and songwriter. He’s also one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.
SAS&M: SOME PEOPLE THINK THAT MUSIC CAN BE A VALUABLE TEACHING TOOL, WHILE OTHERS FIND SUCH NOTIONS LAUGHABLE. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THIS?
KS: People learn in all different ways. I still remember the song I learned in 5th grade about the 50 states…so song sticks with me. I think music is a fantastic way to learn or teach and I get to see it in action at my job in the Classics Department at the University of Georgia. More than one of the professors/lecturers use song to help their students learn Latin.
SAS&M: ANY OTHER COMMENTS?
KS: Thanks for doing this Greg…. The NIMBioS residency was such an amazing experience for me. It gave me a chance to push my limits and change my thinking about writing. I hope the program continues because a lot of good work can be done here!