Friday, October 09, 2009

I... I... I understand a piece of art?

The BME department commissioned a monument, to spruce up the front entrance a bit. Construction began this summer, and the rumors started to fly about how expensive it would be, and how it would look stupid, and how it was a waste.

Not knowing anything about the project, I agreed implicitly. Art is great and all, but is it worth a few dozen grad salaries worth of expense? No.

When the monument was finally unveiled, my friends' concerns were realized, and they expressed their vitriol every time the subject came up. Meanwhile, I still hadn't yet seen the damn thing, because I work in the Diaspora that is the Engineering building.

Eventually I had some business in the BME building, and as I approached the monument, I had no idea what I was looking at.

So I walked around it, and as made my way to the front, it became obvious.

And I got it.

People in my department still hate it, and yes, it probably was way too expensive. But, was it capricious? No way.

This monument embodies everything about Biomedical Engineering, everything that is good and everything that is complicated. It is nothing less than an introduction to the department, and the tone is set by its implications in exactly the way we should hope.

Some disagree with its imagery, the "Running Man" being a macro concept in a field that is mostly interested in cells and particles and atomic bonds. Certainly a sculpture that evokes molecules or organelles or the infamous double-helix would be more fitting? Wrong, I say.

Our work in the trenches may require us to concern ourselves with microscopic (or smaller) science, but we must not forget the end to which these tools are the means. We work within our thesis topics, but looming at the horizon is the all important question: how will this help a person?

It is the whole human that is the beneficiary of our work, and it is the whole human that should inspire and motivate us.

Why the running man, then? Was the artist invoking a once-iconic, now-ironic dance move? Is this an obscure homage to the department's marathon relay team from a few years back? Why not just a human form, but a running human form?

One doesn't have to be an athlete to recognize the power of this image. Healthy people run. Running is arguably the purest competitive sport there is. We should all aspire to be runners, or better, to restore someone else's ability to be a runner. My colleagues' tumor necrotizing projects and bioactive polymer projects and nanomolecular telekinesis projects (okay, I made that last one up) are all supposed to someday make people healthy enough to run.

Most brilliant of all, in my ever-so-humble opinion, is the construction of the monument out of metal pipes. It may be a bit jarring, especially if you approach the building from the quad, as I did, and see nothing but a haphazard stack of pipes.

But, oh, the implications of it! The subtle message here is that Biomedical Engineering approaches the human condition in a completely novel way. The truth is, we are puzzles, and the pieces are whatever we want them to be. Are we cells? Are we tissues? Are we subatomic particles? Of course we are!

I model the variability of motion to gain insight into the brain's control scheme. My classmates modify polymers to encourage nerve growth, and manipulate chemical balances to differentiate stem cells, and apply algorithms to classify stages of cancer with unprecedented accuracy. Mathematics and Materials Engineering and Chemistry and Computer Science inform the identification of the puzzle pieces, often in ways that are counterintuitive and exciting.

It is up to us, the Biomedical Engineers, to turn the puzzle pieces into something useful. The whole comes from the parts, in a way that is absolutely unique to our department. And it is with that unspoken message that newcomers and visitors are welcomed to our building.

1 comment:

TheJenksster said...


hot damn that was a good post