A different kind of university

Like many young Vietnamese students, I wanted to study abroad. But between my academic results and the associated financial burden, this option proved to be unrealistic.  Although I studied at a high school for the gifted, I definitely wasn’t an academic rock star. Except for Biology, I didn’t do very well because I didn’t have much interest in what I was studying. I felt out of place in that system, instead learning by myself on topics I cared about, especially philosophy. I spent a lot of time at the library. Fulbright turned out to be one of few options available to me and at the time felt like a limited choice. But it proved to be exactly what I was looking for.

Nguyen Cao Nghi, Class of 2023

Most of the classes and activities here align very well with my philosophy of studying. For example, our Creating and Making professor, David Bruce, shares a similar passion for self-exploration, endlessly encouraging us to investigate and solve problems that are important and interesting to us. To find our own motivation to achieve things, bringing creations into the world, instead of completing a task because it’s what someone requires from us.

In that sense, Creating and Making is not your ordinary engineering class. But beyond that, its true value, and the value of Fulbright in general, is in the mentorship and support we receive. This is an environment where encounters and ideas can instigate completely new projects.

Project “Germinate”

One day, David sent me an email, sharing articles and resources that he found, as well as his ideas involving bio-art. This is a fairly recent field incorporating biotechnological processes and tools into art, borrowing or embedding living processes, such as live tissues, bacteria, organisms and life processes into artworks. The goal is to ask questions or provoke conversations regarding society, humanity, and the way we see the world.

Dr. David Bruce in a Creating and Making class

He knew I was interested in both biology and art. Originally, his inspiration came from how he usually gets sick around his children, and how his children do not wash their hands thoroughly or often enough. He also saw the same issue at Fulbright. For him, this project was an opportunity to educate people about hygiene and about washing hands. How do you make the invisible visible in creative ways to entertain and enlighten? After our first meeting and brainstorming session, the project grew and expanded far from its original scope.

GERMINATE was born. A group of 6 Fulbrighters experimenting with living cells, using every field of study from philosophy, ethics, communication, visual culture, aesthetics, microbiology, laboratory work, engineering, and even possibly marketing. We collected bacteria from different areas at Fulbright. We grow them in petri dishes and try to find meaningful ways to use them. We preserve them using epoxy resin. We draw with them, grow patterns, or use a fluorescent medium. We build abstract installations, and even started a video log. My group and I oversee this project and have full creative ownership.

A set of petri dishes

Stirring nutrient agar

Extracting bacteria. lactobacilli, to draw with

It is very important to educate people about basic microbiology and disease prevention, but in a climate of rising concerns and panic that surrounds the coronavirus, our focus has shifted towards more positive aspects of microbiology. We intend to leverage some interesting properties of more benign microorganisms to spur conversations on philosophical matters such as life, the human condition, and the relationship between humankind and the rest of the biosphere. The encouragement and support we have received for such an ambitious and transdisciplinary project are unlike any I’ve encountered in other institutions.

 The creative village

David spurred us to action and made suggestions, especially on the topics of materials, engineering, and chemistry, his field of expertise, for example on the proper use of epoxy. We also received guidance from Samhitha Raj, another professor here who specializes in molecular, cellular and developmental Biology. We had additional help from our academic advisors. Not only has their advice been instrumental in getting this project started, but having that ongoing support really gives us the courage to carry on and follow through. It keeps us motivated. Our mentors are so invested in guiding students and through their enthusiasm, I aspire to be relied on as well, and to be held accountable.

Preparing growth medium

Beyond that, I feel that this project is nurtured by many aspects of our studies. Our Creating and Making class has taught us the fundamentals of working together as a team in a project driven approach. We focus on our objectives, have a timeline, and distribute tasks. We listen to each other. From the first week of our project, our approach to material experimentation was very systematic. Visual Culture, another core course, taught us to go beyond “art as beautiful”, and into “art that sparks conversations and challenges ways of thinking”. This critical approach to analyzing and making art is very important for what we set out to achieve. Our endeavor has purpose beyond the aesthetic, and beyond the scientific.

The importance of interdisciplinary

Art and Science are often seen as incompatible, as they don’t share the same vocabulary and operate from different paradigms. But both can generate insights into the world. And as the world and societies become increasingly complex, people from different fields need to communicate more. Contemporary issues can only be solved by working on them from several angles. At Fulbright, our project is an opportunity for students to reflect on what kind of vocabulary, what kind of collaboration is required for fields to synergize. In a sense, this project is a way to bridge the gap, to challenge education and institutions to facilitate more of these conversations.

This is a major source of motivation for me, as my interests are very varied. Some aspects of computer science, cellular biology, the brain, semantics, complex systems, a little bit of artificial intelligence, a lot of philosophy, some art. I don’t believe in fields or disciplines, which can be a challenge in Vietnam’s education system; we reached out to students of other universities, and the response was that students need to focus on their studies.

Although there is a dire need for this form of exploration, it is true that such projects consume a lot of time, both from faculty and students: big picture, long term conceptualization on the one hand, but also materials, resources, and a space on the other. Fulbright not only facilitates the space and freedom to explore outside of traditional studies, but actively encourages it.

This is where my personal interests and academic inclinations can thrive, and it is where GERMINATE can exist. It is now under the umbrella of the Fulbright Art Lab, a club here on campus that boasts at least 7 projects and counting. We are preparing for our exhibition coming up at the beginning of April, the very first art exhibition here at Fulbright, and its first big transdisciplinary, student-led, and student-curated project.  Our creative and scientific adventure is only beginning, and we are excited to share the fruits of our exploration then.

 

Nguyen Cao Nghi – Class of 2023