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The Sound of Science

The Sound of Science
josh-russellIt’s taken a while for Josh Russell, a 37-year-old undergraduate in the College of Natural Sciences, to unify his interests in art, music, computers and science.


A native of Galveston, Texas, Russell did his first stint as an undergraduate in the ’90s, earning a B.A. in photography from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. After graduating, he went to work in the biotech industry, and in his free time he grew increasingly involved in the global, but very tiny, community of people devoted to what’s been called “microsound” or “lowercase” music. The music uses sensitive recording equipment, and computer software, to pick out, amplify, manipulate and create minimalist compositions out of sounds that are barely, or not all, detectible to the human ear (Russell’s latest, for instance, works with the dripping sounds of his leaky kitchen sink).

He was living in San Diego in 2000, still working in biotech, when he founded Bremsstrahlung Recordings, a web-based, non-profit record label that he’s developed into one of the tastemakers in the microsound community.

Inspired in part by the investigative aspect of the music, Russell slowly began to realize that he wanted to get more deeply involved in the scientific, rather than just the technical, side of the research world, and he moved to Austin, where he began working in the lab of biochemistry professor Jon Robertus and taking undergraduate science courses.

Russell returned to his roots in visual art when he gave up his job in Robertus’ lab to take a job at the Institute for Cellular and Molecular Biology (ICMB), where he’d be able to get more access to the microscopy equipment that so fascinated him. He wanted to give Robertus a gift for encouraging him so much.

“He works in x-ray crystallography,” says Russell, “and he made his career solving the protein structure of ricin, the poison. There are these graphs, called Ramachandran plots, that show what areas of your data are significant, and I’d noticed that if you remove the background, they look like modern, abstract paintings. So I made a painting for him of the Ramachandran plot of his ricin form.”

Russell liked the process so much that he’s since delved much deeper into the intersection of art and science. He prints and embellishes photographs taken through the electron microscope. He uses microscopy software to manipulate digital video into still images that he calls “accumulations.” His art now hangs on the walls of the offices where he works in the ICMB, and he was recently commissioned to create similar work for the graduate student lounge of the chemical engineering department.

Russell, who’s in the process of applying to PhD programs in developmental biology, would like to do science at the threshold of what’s possible in terms of observing, and visualizing, cellular processes. He’d also like to keep working as an artist with the images and insights he’s able to derive from science. “The science and the art compliment each other,” he says. “That’s what turns me on.”

Photo: Debra Sugerman

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Sunday, 19 November 2017

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