Episode 4: STEM for artsy types

Andi Horvath: In some ways we should be calling this podcast series The Secret Life of STEAM, not STEM. Yes, STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics. The truth is you really can’t separate the Arts and Humanities from the Sciences, nor the Sciences from the Arts.

Danielle Goulopoulos: If we had a way to travel back to the 15th century and interview the great Renaissance man, Leonardo Da Vinci. I’m sure he would agree.

Yup, the Sciences and Arts and Humanities are intertwined. They help each other work.

Andi: Imagine a scientist who doesn’t understand social bias or ethics.

Danielle : You’ll end up with image recognition programs that are racist - and that actually happened.

Andi: Imagine a sociologist who has zero insight into data and statistical analysis.

Danielle: It will skew their findings - and that’s happened too.

Andi: I’m Dr Andi Horvath, one of your navigators today. I’m science trained, but work in the arts.

Danielle: I’m Danielle Goulopoulos, I am studying arts but I have a thing for science.

Andi: Welcome to the Secret Life of STEM…I mean STEAM , no, STEM - no, STEAM.

Our reporter and producer Buffy Gorrilla went on a field trip to visit a designer in a studio space at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology or RMIT University, here in Melbourne.

Buffy: I have arrived to meet Dr Leah Heiss. I found her on Google, but when I saw she has a PhD in design and is a researcher at RMIT, I knew she would be perfect for this podcast. Dr Heiss works with multi-disciplinary teams - like fashion designers, scientists and engineers, to make wearable healthcare technology that’s beautiful art.

Leah Heiss: So I was lucky enough to be embedded in nanotechnology in Victoria for a year, so I was a designer in the middle of all these great nanotechnology scientists, and they had an amazing healthcare technology, which was a small patch that had between 1 and 10,000 micro-needles on its surface. It enabled you to administer insulin through the skin for diabetics.

So, I started to work on diabetes jewellery, which was a necklace to administer the patch to the skin. Really what it is, it just looks like a beautiful piece of contemporary jewellery, no one knows that it's a drug delivery device, and it's just the user that knows. I don't need to inject anymore, and it's trying to take away that sort of stigma and shame that people have when they have to use medical technologies that are unfriendly.

Buffy: Are these available now? So you've been able to turn this into a business?

Leah: So that particular one has a very active life, being exhibited around the world, but it's not commercialised. But I do have a number of commercialised technologies.

I was really interested in how we might bring together things that we actually like, like beautiful jewellery, or garments, with medical functionality, so direct delivery and diagnostic technologies.

My first degree was advertising and marketing, then I segued into interior design at RMIT, then I did my Masters through a lab called the Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory, that brought together people from all sorts of disciplines to work together.

I first started focusing on wearable tech - I designed a whole range of garments that sensed and transmitted heartbeat over distance, to encourage empathy between people that weren't physically co-located. That was the first time I started to work really collaboratively, so I had an electronic engineer and a fashion designer in the team with me, to help actualise those projects.

So, while I'm not an engineer, or a scientist, or a medical doctor, I have a lot of interest in those fields, and I spend a lot of time surrounding myself by people from those fields, and so I have enough of that language to be able to communicate.

The role of the designer is to translate between different disciplines, and to make sure that the project delivers a very cohesive outcome.

Buffy: Can we take a look? Ooh, that’s a good design award winner

Leah: Facett was the world's first self-fit modular hearing aid that I designed for Blamey Saunders, hearing aid company here in Melbourne. I was charged with developing the user experience and form development for the hearing aid. It was a really wonderful process, because I wanted to, as a designer, I wanted to shift the stigma of hearing aids. So, the stigma of age, and disability that goes along with hearing aids. So, I spent a lot of time in the archives of the Melbourne Museum with the geologists, looking at colour and texture and form. So what I've done, is to create, with the huge engineering and audiological team, this device that looks like a beautiful crystalline form, so really different to traditional hearing aids.

Buffy: Yes, because what I'm looking at is a beautiful gold piece that looks like you almost could have found it in a geode or an agate, and it is not that clunky, false nude colour that you normally see in a hearing aid.

Leah: So, I have a bit of an allergy to what I think of as disabled beige, because I don't think anyone actually likes that colour. What we've done is we've developed it in four really gorgeous colours: opalescent white, a silver that really integrates into the hairline of people that have white or silvery hair, a rose gold, you know that fits with a lot of skin tones, and also a matte black, and the matte black is sort of the idea of the SUV of the hearing aid market. You know, for men that are, maybe not all men, but particularly for, we were looking at this market of people that might be ageing, but don't want to be seen as losing any power in the boardroom, so it's kind of a really hip hearing aid.

Buffy: How long did it take to go from idea to market with this particular product?

Leah: So, I started doing the concept design for this in about September of 2015, and then it was launched in March of 2018, so it's two and a half years.

It's really important that people don't think that they're going to have the best idea right away. For instance, with our Facett hearing aid, we developed over 200 iterative models in order to come with the human-centered outcome that went to market. So, you have an idea, and then through prototyping, and practicing, and testing, and refining that with people, and with team members, you start to change that over time. I think that's a really key message to take away.

Buffy:Which colour would you get, if you had to wear one of these Facetts?

Leah: I really like the rose gold, and that's the one I usually take with me. That's been exhibited most widely. It's just very pretty.

Danielle: Here is something worth knowing. The word scientist wasn't even a word until the 19th century. That was Dr Leah Heiss, an artist who has immersed herself in science. Now let’s meet a scientist who was drawn to the arts…

Mary Mathias: Growing up, I always loved like Legos and K'Nex. I would build the ... I think I had a whole amusement park set up that I built in our basement, and I also loved going to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC with my family. I was just fascinated by all of the science.

My dad's also a huge space nerd, just like me. I think he passed it along. And so, yeah, the Air and Space Museum was just fascinating and we both love like the Apollo Moon missions. So, that just, yeah, that kind of kick started my interest in aerospace stuff. So I thought, "Hey, Aerospace Engineering is a good fit."

Andi: That’s Mary Mathias, she currently works for the US National Academy of Engineering as the Website Community Manager for EngineerGirl, and also the Online Ethics Center. But before all this, she studied aerospace engineering in the United States.

Mary: One of my favourite classes was actually called Spacecraft Design. We went through all the different components of spacecraft, y'know everything you need to think about- from orbital mechanics to cooling, and all of that.

I think studying engineering kind of taught me new ways to think, almost. I'm better able to look at a question or a problem and break it down and see all the pieces and how I can work through all of those. And that, even though that's true for any STEM field, I'm sure, not to mention the rigour of an engineering program, you learn to be very, very organised and know that you can get through a lot.

I also took a really cool project class where we got to work on actual projects. The aerospace kind of students were building a satellite, like one of those little mini satellites. So, we were testing the smaller part on a NASA Zero-Gravity Airplane, and just seeing how the propulsion we were using moved it around.

So, the whole process was really cool. We had to write a whole proposal and we had to kind of it defend it, sort of with some questions. Then our team went to Houston and worked on getting everything ready for the plane and then we had to present it to a team and kind of answer their questions again. And then we got to take on the plane and the plane flies in, like, parabolas. So, it kind of goes into a free fall, almost, on the way down. And that's when you'd get about 30 seconds of zero gravity where we could test our propulsion. It did work pretty well.

Actually through that project with the Zero-G thing, I was the outreach lead for the group. So, I worked with a local science museum near my school and we did a presentation and a little program with a local middle school. And through my communications with the Science Museum, I actually ended up going back that summer for an internship and just fell in love with museums and kind of the informal education outreach side of STEM. After college I was like, "Okay, I want to work in a museum."

Andi: After uni, Mary studied for a Master's in Museum Studies. But sometimes, as she found, it can be hard to shed that scientific way of writing, and she needed insights into different communication skills.

Mary: I think I was a bit rusty with my writing style. I was still very much on the kind of scientific lab report style, like no embellishment, just the facts. So, I was a little rusty there.

So, I took another little sidetrack and worked for a film company for a little while, but worked for another museum and then hopped over to a museum association and worked there for a bit.

Danielle: Having a background in STEM and going full STEAM ahead to work in the arts industry can be a great career mash up.

Mary: I think it's important for everyone to remember how kind of intertwined these are. There's a lot more to STEM fields than just math and physics and things. Like, in engineering, you need art for design of different components. And knowing the history of what you're doing can help with context and knowing what's come before and what will help. Not to mention like communication is vital in STEM fields and engineering.

Danielle: Here’s a little history for you. Around the 19th century the two cultures of science and art developed their own missions, but by the end of the 20th century the Science-Arts movement once again picked up STEAM, pun intended.

Andi: Yup! The value of the multi-cross-trans-interdisciplinary approach to learning, understanding and questioning our world is exciting.

Danielle: It works because the Sciences and Arts energise each other, giving us a clearer picture of our world. There are Science Art spaces for the public too, virtual and real, appearing all around the world, like the one here in Melbourne called the Science Gallery.

Andi: Here’s Dr Nicki Cranna, who is Science Education officer at the Walter and Eliza Hall medical research institute. She explains more about …

Nicki: The Science Gallery Network, which is a global network of galleries, really aiming to inspire young people to get curious about science. And we have them popping up all over the globe at the moment, and they're really sort of interactive and really get you to think about the science using specific artworks that have been created around a theme. Such as, we have the disposable theme coming up in The Science Gallery Melbourne this year, which is really touching on the fact that with the plastic issue and climate change, they are using art to really, to look into those issues deeply.

Andi: She is also artistic director of a Science/Arts magazine.

Nicki: Lateral is a science art magazine, which sort of works as a platform for emerging science communicators to develop their skills artistically in writing.

I really need to think about the article topics that we'll be publishing in Lateral for each issue, and which artist that I have, I think will be appropriate to create a piece to go alongside the article to really sort of illustrate the main themes of that article.

Andi: So both the artist and the science communicator are communicating the same message, so to speak, but from different angles.

Nicki: Exactly, yes.

Andi: If you were able to talk to your year 10 self, what would you tell your year 10 self?

Nicki: I would say, challenge yourself into thinking about how the two actually relate, because you'd be surprised at how many interrelated aspects you'll find.

Danielle: If you are an arty type, it's very likely you will work with science types.

Andi: And if you are a science type it's very likely you will work with teams and people from the arts and humanities.

Alexa, Siri, Google, tell me about home assistants! No, scratch that, I’m going to ask my co-host, Danielle Goulopoulos, to reverse engineer it...

Danielle: Hi, I’m Danielle, and I’m an arts student doing a media communications degree. Today I want to talk to you about voice activated home assistants. In the science fiction series Star Trek, Captain Jean Luc Picard gives voice commands to the starship Enterprise. He says things like , “computer, play Beethoven” or “dim the lights” or “computer, what is the location of the Chief Science Officer?”

Well, some of us are already living in the 24th Century, because this is exactly what home assistants do.

Aside from doing everything a Google search already does, if you set a home assistant up to work with your home, with just a few words you can dim the lights, switch power points on and off, lock and unlock the front door, control the thermostat, play Beethoven, switch on the TV, and even change the channel through the assistant.

To get your home assistant to complete useful tasks, you first need to install “smart” devices like computerised light globes, door locks and thermostats that are able to use Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi access lets the objects connect to and receive instructions from your home assistant, and the computer in the object helps it to process and execute the commands.

This idea of linking smart objects so they can communicate with each other is officially called “The Internet of Things” or I-o-T for short. It first became a reality in 1982, when geniuses at Carnegie Mellon University linked a Coke vending machine to the internet. This allowed the machine to communicate its stock levels and temperature of the Coke inside it, and it gave a voice to vending machines everywhere.

The idea of a computer network linking and controlling objects has been around for ages. The 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, has a computer called Hal which turns rogue and turns off the life support for humans, and of course the 1984 classic The Terminator where Skynet computers gain self-awareness and decide to eliminate their human creators.

The early to mid 20th century led Isaac Asimov to think about robots and today what we call ‘computer programming ethics’. He created the 3 laws of robotics, that are in summary: robots cannot harm humans, they must obey orders except if those orders harm humans, and must protect themselves unless they’re going to harm humans. These laws are further explored and visualised in the film, I-Robot, where robots are virtual slaves. Back on the home assistants track, I’ve even seen an episode of a murder-mystery show, Diagnosis Murder, where a house – or rather, the programmer of its smart features – was found guilty of murdering the inhabitant. He had taken his remote control of technology way too far.

Which brings me to my final point about home assistants – are they safe or not? Well, since they’re now being used to remember things like passwords and locations of hidden objects in your house, this quickly becomes a privacy minefield.

With our home assistant being able to link to our phone, and our phone being able to track wherever we go when we’ve got location on, this creates an opportunity for hackers or burglars. If someone can gain access to your home assistant, they could not only tell where you were and approximately when you’d be home, but they could ask your assistant where you keep your car keys and even get the assistant to lock the door once they were finished burgling.

Now, I’m certainly not saying that if you buy a home assistant you’re setting yourself up for home invasion or that you’ll face an uprising staged by your own house. What I am saying though, is that care should be taken when considering what information you give your home assistant, and how much access you give it to other devices in your life.

In the meantime, let’s hope the programmers have figured out a way of ensuring we don’t head down the Terminator track. This is still new technology that needs road testing, so for the moment let's hold off telling them our passwords. So, there you go! If nothing else, you should have a few film recommendations for the coming holidays! 'Cause you never know – Big Brother just might be Alexa. From me, Danielle, good luck in your programming adventures.

Andi: Danielle, good job, thank you.

Danielle: Thank you, I worked really hard on that.

Andi: The arts and the sciences collide ...

Danielle …with a big bang.

Andi: Let’s go back to Buffy, who is still chatting with Dr Leah Heiss at RMIT University.

Buffy: What are you working on now?

Leah Heiss: I'm working on a really interesting project with a pretty extraordinary guy called Matiu Bush from Bolton Clarke Age Care. We're working on a sensor to detect loneliness, for people who live alone in the environment. It looks like a little lapel pin that's on your collar. What it's doing is counting words, and it's correlating the number of words you speak, against a baseline for healthy interaction rates. Because what we're finding, is that a lot of people are living alone for longer, and by the next 15 years there's going to be millions of people living alone. There's a great sense of isolation and loneliness that is occurring. What we want to understand, is how much are people communicating. And when someone's not communicating enough, and starting to be at risk of loneliness, the little pin will just send a text message to a loved one or a care worker, just a little nudge to touch base, and say, "how are you going?" Just sort of lift the spirits a bit, to help that interaction.

Buffy: What is the baseline for how many words you should be speaking? If you had that information at hand. That's fascinating.

Leah: I was on a radio interview the other day, and we were talking about, we think it was 7000 for men, and 21000 for women, but we actually need to double-check that. But what doesn't exist, is a database of interaction rates for older people. We have that for young children, and we know children that aren't exposed to enough language, can have serious educational challenges, but just don't have that information for older people. It's not like we're listening in on the conversations, the technology just counts the number of words. I think it would be really important to see.

Buffy: How does it count the words? Talk me through that.

Leah: It canvasses existing mobile phone technologies. Basically, we've had all of this innovation in mobile phone technology, and there's lots of tiny, tiny things now, so tiny gyroscopes that can be used for falls monitoring, tiny speakers, tiny microphones, and so within our technology, we're using little tiny microphones, and then we do a whole lot of...it's part of what's called IOT, internet of things. We're doing a whole lot of data processing, some of it on the pin, and some of it in the phone, so it basically sends the data in packages, from the pin to the phone, and then it's about just counting phonemes, recognising speech patterns.

It's still in the lab at the moment, but it's a great project, because in the team we have a really talented jeweller and watchmaker, Emma Luke, and a whole range of engineers, and also age care partners. It's a really great example of how when you get really multidisciplinary teams together, you can come up with quite extraordinary things.

Andi : Thanks to our multidisciplinary team who put together this episode of the Secret Life of STEM. This series was made possible by the University of Melbourne.

Thanks to everyone who shared their stories. Thanks to my co host Danielle Goulopoulos.

Danielle: My pleasure! Thanks Andi for co-hosting with me. Our reporter was Buffy Gorrilla. The Reverse engineering segment on Home assistants was by me, Danielle Goulopoulos, with editing and sound design from Silvi Vann-Wall.

This podcast is co-produced and edited by Buffy Gorrilla.

Supervising co-producer and science advisor is Dr Andi Horvath.

Andi: Additional production support from Arch Cuthbertson.