Blending art, science to reverse biomedical career shortage

Closeup of Molly Kelton and Jeb Owen sitting outside.
Molly Kelton and Jeb Owen

By C. Brandon Chapman, College of Education

The National Institutes of Health have awarded Washington State University a five-year grant worth $1.2 million to increase the number and diversity of students from rural Washington who enter biomedical careers.

The project is called HEAL, short for Health Education through Arts-Based Learning, and will be led by Molly Kelton, College of Education, and Jeb Owen, Department of Entomology.

Kelton said the overarching vision for the project has to do with a long-standing struggle in STEM education, specifically in relation to equity.

“We know that people who find themselves in STEM pursuits, and in STEM professions later in life, don’t often reflect the overall diversity of the population in the United States,” Kelton said. “So, part of the goal for this project is to bring engaging programming to underrepresented, rural communities to help bolster interest and engagement and a sense of possible futures in relation to STEM careers.”

For this project, that engagement comes in an art form.

Bridging a gap through arts integration

Arts is the “A” in “HEAL”. Kelton said there’s a growing body of work around leveraging the arts, and this project is no exception.

“The team will use visual art strategies to help bring in young people who might not otherwise see themselves in science or in STEM,” she said. “The other piece really comes through an explicit focus on scientific complexity.”

That’s where Owen comes in. His main objective is to help make people and livestock safer by improving disease management.

Plus, he’s not just a scientist. He’s also an artist. And he’s spent the last number of years running a K‑3 program at Franklin Elementary School in Pullman, Washington.

“We try to make art based on scientific ideas or concepts,” he said.

On one hand, Owen admits the course has helped him selfishly satisfy his own interest in art. But on the other hand, there’s a positive outcome that is reached at an early age when the art allows young students to think about things in a more abstract way. It’s a need Owen said he’s seen throughout his time at WSU.

“Many students come to the university lacking the ability to execute complex thinking, to think abstractly, problem solve and link disparate ideas,” he said. “All of these things are required to understand more about these disease systems that are operating on so many different layers. I wanted to know why this deficit existed, especially in the sciences.”

The answer came because of his kids. Or, more precisely, school work his kids had to do.

“They came home in the third grade with their plans for the science fair, and their instructions basically included details on how to develop a hypothesis and test a hypothesis, and it was the most dry, boring thing I had ever read.”

Just in case Owen had already known it, but simply forgotten, this experience was a good reminder for him that hypothesis testing was not why most budding scientists would be motivated to choose their career.

“As was the case with me, student interest in science is really because of a deeper curiosity about how the world works and really an aesthetic appeal of the natural world and its processes.” he said. “It occurred to me that art was a way more intuitive way to hook kids into scientific ideas and really cultivate their curiosity; much more than this dry, formulaic approach.”

Kelton said this appeal will help young students see themselves and their rural communities as a genuine part of the biomedical enterprise.

“There is a need for educational programs and rural capacity building initiatives that will help these children,” Kelton said. “Biomedical science and science professions can seem unattainable to many low-income and minority children living in rural-agricultural regions across the United States. We believe this project will bolster the recruitment of students from underrepresented communities into the biomedical research pipeline. We hope this integrated focus on arts will help.”


Adding arts to STEM isn’t exactly a new concept, but this STEM-to-STEAM movement has gained momentum and the HEAL team plans to leverage that support.

“What we are going to be doing is focusing on our particular visual-arts-based strategies we conjecture will be particularly high-leverage for helping young people begin to think in a systems way,” Kelton said.

There will be four artistic strategies to this project:

  • Scientific illustration
  • Photography
  • 2D and 3D cartography
  • Information graphics

“For each of these strategies, we’ll develop programming that engages children in critical thinking of health science issues that uniquely impact their communities,” Kelton said. “Specifically, these issues will be zoonotic disease systems. Things like West Nile virus or Hantavirus, in which Jeb is an expert.”

Owen said if you’ve been educationally programmed like most, you may not immediately draw a connection between, say, cartography and Hantavirus. But it’s there.

“Risk of infection of any kind is not uniformly distributed in space, or demographically, or socio-economically,” Owen said. “Think of differences in access to health care, for example. Those things all coalesce into a cartography-based approach to understanding where individuals may get sick and where they may not get sick, so we can mitigate those risks based on understanding those complexities.”

Owen said it all starts with education.

“Telling someone not to do X or Y because they will get sick, doesn’t work unless you tell them why,” he said “Education is the lynchpin in disease management. That’s why I think this arts-based approach is really valuable.”

Kelton said by the end of the project, the team’s hope is that it will have developed a comprehensive set of curricula and accompanying professional materials that schools can adopt.

“Part of what we’re trying to do to make implementation easier is to take a modular approach, in terms of design and programming,” she said. “That way, if there’s a teacher with some flexibility, they can incorporate some pieces of this project.”

But another strategy in this project will include connecting with more than just schools.

“We’re partnering with after-school and out-of-school programs, low-income housing nonprofits, and other spaces that are outside of the box in terms of where we typically think of science learning,” Kelton said. “These types of programs aren’t as entrenched, giving us a little more creative freedom.”

Increasing health literacy

Amidst all the focus on helping more students chose a science career, it might be easy to miss that there’s a very real public health service that this project provides.

Owen said one thing that is underappreciated by the public is the number of tools that currently exist to manage infectious disease. He added that the tools most people focus on are chemical ones, such as antibiotics and parasiticides.

“Those tools, if we try to measure their efficacy in controlling a disease, are totally dwarfed by the impact of education,” he said. “Education alone is the most important way, by far, to manage disease.”

Owen said if more people understood how diseases work and the underlying causes of disease risk, they can make better informed choices about how to live their lives to avoid disease.

“The most cost-effective way to manage disease is to not get it in the first place, and without education, we really cannot have any effective management of disease,” he said. “People don’t realize the intense, extreme economic costs that infectious disease creates because of lost work or medical care to keep people alive. All these things could be most effectively managed if nobody got infected in the first place. But that will never happen if people don’t understand the underlying mechanism at play.”

Not only will students be learning, but they will be teaching, and therein lies on of the educational beauties of this project, Kelton said.

“As part of this project, every module has an art show at the end, where kids can invite their parents and community members to come see their work,” she said.

Owen said this provides the young students an opportunity to both highlight their work and teach community members what they’re learning.

“It’s a way to export this knowledge in a way that not dry and narrative driven, but visually impactful,” Owen said. “The relevance of that to infectious disease management cannot be underscored enough.”

Completely collaborative

Speak to either Kelton or Owen, and it’s apparent that this project is truly a team effort.

“I understood the art, but I knew I didn’t have a background in education or the theory behind pedagogy,” Owen said. “I was lucky enough that someone connected me to Molly, who is already an expert in integrating art and math in a variety of different formats. In the end, our interests overlapped so much, it was perfect for this type of bigger project.”

Owen said he believes the project will be successful precisely because of the partnership.

“Solving big, complex problems requires multidisciplinary teams working on them,” he said. “These complexities require diverse, disparate groups of talented people. And we achieved that with this group. I’m really proud of that.”

Kelton thinks this partnership, in a unique position to help solve a societal challenge, is why the team received the grant.

“I think funders largely acknowledge that the best work is done by collaborative, interdisciplinary teams.”

Other key university contributors include Patricia Butterfield, Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine; Robert Danielson, College of Education; Regina Ord, director of the WSU Extension Yakima County; and AnaMaria Diaz Martinez, WSU Extension Pasco.

This project was made possible by a Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA), Grant Number 1R25GM129814-01, from the National Institutes of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), National Institutes of Health (NIH).

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