Joshua Sariñana hopes that combining science, poetry, and photography can create new avenues for understanding and advocating for social justice.
Joshua Sariñana (PhD ‘11) has always asked big questions. “I wanted to understand consciousness,” Sariñana says of studying neuroscience at MIT. “Where do we begin? Why is there something versus nothing at all?” His voracious curiosity has led Sariñana to traverse various disciplines in his intellectual career, from philosophy and psychology to written and visual arts.
Now, Sariñana is colliding his fields of interest as director of The Poetry of Science, a public art installation with a social justice mission, currently on display at Mass General Hospital. Supported by the Cambridge Arts Council Art for Racial Justice Grant, the project represents a multimedia collaboration between local poets and scientists of color, intended to showcase their combined talents, highlight their positive contributions to the world, and enhance viewer understanding of science through art.
“My goal was to better communicate between humanities and the sciences,” Sariñana says, a need he’s felt expressed in the Cambridge community. The exhibit presents photo portraits of 11 of the 13 participating scientists, including several MIT students and alumni, alongside poetry that delves into the meaning of their work.
Sariñana hopes the project can be a step toward coalition building between artists and scientists of color to imagine a better future. “The scientific community and the poetry community usually don’t talk to each other,” Sariñana says. “But when they come together, they’re forming a new language that can work to resist systems of oppression.”
The impacts of memory
Born and raised in San Jose, Calif., Sariñana came to MIT having studied neuroscience as an undergraduate at UCLA. It was an exceptional path, he recalls, that began with several years of community college. Once he set his sights on the neuroscience program at MIT, “I would really just push myself to get there,” he says. Sariñana ultimately focused his doctoral studies on the role of dopamine in learning and memory.
His interest in photography began as a diversion during school but soon became more to him. Studying abroad in Paris, Sariñana recalls going through more than a dozen disposable cameras before eventually moving over to film and then digital photography. As a hobby, photography satisfied his love of working with his hands. Sariñana began submitting his photos to publications and galleries, which led to solo exhibitions and published essays.
Photography also became another means for Sariñana to explore his fascination with memory and how people think. The form itself presents a unique intersection of art and technology: “The science side of me thinks about photography in terms of, what does it mean to present information in a way that gives narrative?” he says. In terms of photography as an art form, “I think about, ‘What am I trying to convey?’ It’s usually an abstraction of information, but I’m still telling a story,” Sariñana says. “It’s an emotional presentation, and people can take what they want from it.”
The making of The Poetry of Science
The power of art and storytelling was very much on Sariñana’s mind when he conceived of The Poetry of Science with the poet Linsey Jayne, his friend and collaborator. In the wake of nationwide anti-racism protests following the killing of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, Sariñana was eager to create work that spoke to the emotionally charged moment. “I wanted to do something in response that focused on racial and social justice,” he says.
With the support of a grant from the Cambridge Arts Council, Sariñana and Jayne put out calls for scientists and poets of color to collaborate on the project; six poets and eleven scientists from the Boston area ultimately were selected. Each scientist was paired with a poet, and the groups met several times over Zoom, where the poets gathered details and inspiration from the scientists about their work.
The exhibit pairs the resulting poems with portraits of the scientists in natural settings, photographed by Vanessa Leroy. Sariñana’s hope is that the images create positive associations by presenting “creative people of color who are generating novel forms of reality,” surrounded by the natural world they hope to help people better understand.
The poems provide a unique avenue through which to comprehend the scientists’ work. “I felt that poets could give the community access to science in a way that really highlights its awesomeness — as in, filling them with awe,” Sariñana says. “Directly associating poetry with the visual presentation of the scientists themselves offers this multi-layered feeling.”
Reverberations from MIT and beyond
Among the scientists featured in The Poetry of Science are a number of MIT students and alumni, including Dr. Daniel Chonde (SB ’07, PhD ‘15). A current radiology resident at Massachusetts General Hospital, Chonde shares with Sariñana the belief that combining arts and science presents a uniquely powerful opportunity to impact people’s thinking and generate change. Chonde is also the founder of The Peoples’ heART (Health Equity x Art) Project, a collaboration between hospital employees and the communities it serves, aimed at reimagining clinical spaces to promote equity.
“Mirror neurons can get activated with art; that would suggest that art can build empathy,” Chonde previously told Arts at MIT. “If art can build empathy, then it is something that we need to consider in reshaping the world into a more equitable place.”
From his scientific training at MIT, Sariñana gleaned the importance of creating work that’s intended for the world’s betterment. “To have your work be an exemplar or improve the world in some way — to ensure what you do is poignant and reflects a sort of need that’s missing — is what you’re trained to do at MIT,” Sariñana says.
Of course, Sariñana considers advocating for social justice an ongoing mission, and intends for his work to continue. After the exhibit in the MGH lobby from November 13 through 30, The Poetry of Science will be mounted at the MIT Rotch Library from December 6 through January 28; Spry Literary Journal (Spry Lit), will also publish an issue dedicated solely to the project. The Poetry of Science will also present at the Longfellow House Fall Lecture Series on November 12. And Sariñana will soon announce the selected artists taking part in his next multidisciplinary endeavor, Through These Realities, supported by the Somerville Arts Council. The project will bring together photographers and poets of color, pairing original poems (prompted by a quote from James Baldwin) with photos inspired by them.
“We’ve come to a point where it’s very difficult to solve social problems, because people have created languages that are so inflexible,” Sariñana considers. “We need to create new languages in order to build new systems of thinking as a way to help shift emotional perspectives, or we’re going to continue to face the consequences of injustice.”
Written by Naveen Kumar