Poetry Centre

Science Writes to Life

  • Steven_Matthews.jpg

    In this project, poets and students associated with the Poetry Centre were given the opportunity to work alongside colleagues in the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, to learn about their research and teaching, and then to create new work of their own in response. The response from both 'sides' was enthusiastic, and writers from the Centre engaged with work on cell division, blood and genetics, plant classification, microscopy, bees, and much else. The project was drawn together by an evening on 11 May 2012 at the Pegasus Theatre, Oxford, organised by Dr. Anne Osterrieder, Research and Science Communication Fellow, Health and Life Sciences, and Professor Steven Matthews (pictured), Director of the Poetry Centre in the Department of English and Modern Languages.

    The event also featured the prizegiving for the winners of the poetry and science competition, launched at the annual Oxford Brookes Science Bazaar, and those poems can be read here.

    In the second part of the evening, the new works from the science and poetry engagement were performed for the first time. The T.S. Eliot Prize-shortlisted poet, Fiona Sampson, read from her new work at the event, including work which itself spoke to her own conversations recently with Brookes scientists.

    These pages showcase the scientific research being done by colleagues in Health and Life Sciences alongside the artistic responses to their work, as well as a number of reflections by the participants.

    According to Dr Anne Osterrieder,

    [a]s organisers we had a blurry vision of where we wanted our participants to be at the end of this collaborative project: on a theatre stage, ideally holding a sheet of paper with a creative piece of research communication. I think it is safe to say that the process of getting there was as much of a surprise to us as it was to the participants. Seeing it all come together at the evening event and enjoying everyone's work was an amazing experience.

    Reflecting upon her part in the project, Fiona Sampson wrote:

    I was glad when the team at Oxford Brookes contacted me about the Science Writes to Life project. Aeons ago, it seems now, I held an AHRC creative practitioner's fellowship at the university's Poetry Centre: something that gave me a wonderful breathing space for which I continue to be grateful.

    But there's a deeper reason for my enthusiasm for the project. I've spent quite a lot of my working life within, or in dialogue with, the medical humanities; and I've found interacting with clinicians occasionally frustrating but often mutually rewarding. Researchers, of course, have by definition more time for, and more of an obligation towards, reflection on what it is that they do. I'm just finishing a residency at the Sanger Institute for the Human Genome in Cambridge, and am full of respect for the thoughtful, responsive approach of the terrific minds at work there - as well as for their openness to dialogue.

    It sees to me that a fundamental task of poetry is to transform and to humanize whatever it encounters. The consequences of much scientific research are of real importance to all of us; but the methodology can appear alienating. It's not really, of course: it's a human endeavor. But anything which allows us to see its essential humanity, and how it fits into the lives of non-specialists, seems to me to be important. Poetry doesn't have to be applied, like this, to be valuable; but it's a bonus to work in such a context.

    I find scientists talking about their motivation - about why rather than how they do what they do - the easiest way in to thinking about this field. And I enjoy human dialogue. So my poems responded to - are about - Brookes's research scientists themselves.