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Cambridge scientists reveal their artistic side in summer event

Cambridge Open Studios is proving art and science do mix – with many scientists taking part in the famous summer event to exhibit their work alongside other artists. These scientists are showing you can excel in both fields, with an array of their beautiful artworks on show during the July exhibition. From painting to glasswork, printing and jewellery, scientists in Cambridge have been inspired to create a whole range of works that they will be showing to the public during Cambridge Open Studios.

More than 350 artists will run an exciting range of exhibitions at 221 locations around the city. The weekends are: July 1/2, 8/9, 15/16 and 22/23. However, as not all artists will exhibit every weekend it is important to check the website, or refer to the famous yellow guide. These guides will be widely available in local outlets including libraries, tourist information sites, galleries and selected shops.

Members of the public can keep up to date on their activities via the COS website () or by following them on Facebook, Twitter () and Instagram, where they can also follow specific artists.

We spoke to five scientists who will be exhibiting their work to find out what inspires them and how they took up art.

Jackie Duckworth, from Fulbourn, 152a in the guidebook

"I used to be a clinical cytogeneticist, which is a side-branch of genetics, researching leukaemia at the Royal Free Hospital and then at Addenbrookes Hospital. Funnily enough, art did play a part in my job as a scientist as I used to look through microscopes and sketch what I saw. It was part of my daily life. Of course now a researcher would simply analyse the sample using a computer but this was before that technology was available.

When I had my children I took a long break from work to look after them and found that afterwards I couldn’t get back into my scientific career. I did enjoy my work as a scientist but needed to look for something new to do instead.

I had always enjoyed art in school and remarked to a friend that I wished I had kept going with it. She suggested I look at doing a course at Cambridge Regional College. So I signed up but I wasn’t intending to take my artwork further than just a hobby. But my tutor at college was so encouraging that I applied to study illustration at Anglia Ruskin University. I now focus on printmaking and textiles.

My art uses skills I developed in my scientific career as both printmaking and textile art tend to require a lot of planning and puzzle solving. Printmaking also has the big reveal - you do all the preparatory work without ever quite knowing how the final image will turn out. This is very like the work I did as a scientist; lots of practical, hands on preparation, but you never know for sure what you will see when you look down the microscope.

Being an artist and a scientist both require observation, attention to detail and the ability to think outside the box. Sometimes I will start to work on an idea and then realise that it needs a completely different approach to my normal work.

I feel very inspired working in Cambridge as a scientific centre. I even recently took part in the Creative Reactions/Pint of Science project, where I was partnered with a research scientist from Addenbrookes. The works that I made for that exhibition will be on show in my Open Studio this year".


Sasha Garrett, from central Cambridge, number 71 in the guidebook

“I was a medical chemist but switched careers from chemistry to jewellery design when I got fed up of being made redundant. Having learnt silver smithing as a hobby it appealed to me as an alternative career so I made the leap and am loving every moment of it.

The branch of chemistry I was in (drug design/ pharmaceuticals) is incredibly creative and I see a lot of overlap between the two, then I analysed biological data to decide what molecule to make next, figured out the chemistry to make it and finally (attempt to) make it.

“Now I analyse sales patterns and market trends to see what I might want to make next and then figure out how to make it and which gemstones to possibly use. I have a lot more leeway now so if I want to make something 'just because' then I do but the analytical nature doesn't go away. Neither does the planning - how to make a piece in the least number of steps with the most efficient use of time and materials.

My chemistry background also influences my choice in the stones I work with, I find myself being drawn to ones where I can see how the crystals have grown or the chemical composition has changed as layers have been formed. Thankfully my partner is also a chemist so understands me when I start going on about 'light reflecting off an n terminated plane...', impurities and crystal polymorphs but I do occasionally have to remind myself that customers might not know what I'm going on about and tone down my geekery.

I certainly didn't appreciate how creative the sciences are until I started working in the field, I also think that people don’t realise how much science is involved in art”


Ciara Twomey, from Girton, number one in the guidebook

“I did a PhD in cancer biology, before doing academic research and latterly working in drug discovery in Cambridge biotech companies.

I've always been interested in art and every year I toured around Open Studios with my young daughter. I was looking for a new career and was impressed by the glass work I saw. This, together with my previous experience in stained glass as a hobby, meant I decided to focus on glass. I like to include lots of different glass forms; sheet, grains, strings etc., as well as other materials like copper to add interest.  I am particularly drawn to abstract, natural, flowing designs. 

An obvious crossover from my scientific training to my glass work is my technical approach. I use the classic scientific system of making one change at a time, taking careful notes and repeating processes precisely.  This ensures I can produce a high quality result every time, once I have established a method.  The unique aspect of each piece is added through colour and texture choice.  Science has also taught me great trouble-shooting techniques and, critically, perseverance!  I think scientists are far more creative than is recognised, constantly changing tack depending on their results. " 

I feel science has provided me with an approach to my art and I feel very connected to Cambridge through my interest in science."


Di Cope, from Burwell, 175 in the guidebook

“I was a biochemist and did a PhD at the University of Bath, before working at a series of highly regarded British universities - the most recent being Cambridge.

However, I have always enjoyed art after discovering at age 12 that I could draw. So I drew in my spare time - mostly rally cars as that was another of my interests in my teenage years.  I was in my mid-20s before I discovered I could use colour as well and I learned to use oil paints in the “Arts Barn”, which was the only arts facility (literally, a barn) in an all-science University (Bath).  There was no formal teaching, but it was a place of respite for any staff and students who had an interest.  

I learnt a lot there and experimented with different types of media. Now I work mostly in oil paint, but because I fit in my art work with being a full-time mum-of-three. Sometimes I don’t have much time, so I also work in pencil, charcoal, and Conte crayons- as something I can just “pick up and do” if I only have half an hour to spare.  

I gave up working when I was pregnant with my second child (who is now ten years old!), and have become an artist since my youngest started school the year before last, so I haven’t really tried doing both together very much (though, in the days before the internet, and images of anything-at-all available at everyone’s finger-tips, I was frequently asked to illustrate the life-cycle of a nematode, or try to show something intracellular- though I also made myself available to promotional posters for graduation dinners, and the “Biochemistry” department’s t-shirts (the design of which, I believe, is still being used today- more than 20 years ago!).  Actually - yes.  I think it is absolutely compatible.  

I think that the only thing that my science has given me towards my artwork is the capacity to keep going even if the results aren’t as anticipated!!  Much of my work as a scientist was repetitive laboratory work, changing a variable here, and a little something else there.  Although my painting is very rarely repetitive, sometimes I just need to change something small, to create a much desired effect!


Iain Smith, from central Cambridge, number 36a in the guidebook

“I trained as a physicist and worked in engineering research and development at a local organisation, TWI Ltd. I am now retired and living in Chesterton.

I have always been interested in glass as an art form and, after more than 30 years in science and engineering, I began to learn about kiln formed glass in 2008. I am mainly self-taught, through reading, experiment, mistakes and practice.

My approach is to make objects that are functional and useful, as well as beautiful. My background in science and engineering has influenced my designs, which are often geometric and very precisely cut.

Bowls are my favourite form. I like their appearance and feel. They are useful and they make the most of the wonderful colours of glass. We use a number of bowls I have made around our house as dessert dishes and fruit bowls. I also make plates and coasters and have designed and fabricated leaded glass windows for friends and relations.”

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