This month we’re catching up with Dr. Peter Krsko, scientist, artist, and community leader. Dr. Krsko was a postdoctoral fellow at the NICHD from 2006 to 2009 in the Laboratory of Integrative and Medical Biophysics, advised by Dr. Ralph Nossal. He studied bacterial biofilms, specifically their microscopic morphology and mechanical properties.
After his postdoctoral work, Dr. Krsko transitioned from bench to brush, founding Krsko Creative Group (http://www.peterkrsko.com/) and becoming a community leader in the integration of science and art. He is a driving force in education, but you don’t need to take our word for it; check out our Q&A with Dr. Krsko here:
When did you start thinking about a career in art?
It's always been a challenge for me to draw the dividing line between science and art. As a microscopist, I have always presented my data and results in a visual way. Based on feedback from conferences and publications, I realized that images help the audience to understand and remember the message more effectively.
During my graduate studies at Stevens Institute of Technology, I found myself in a group of creatives who worked in public spaces in a collaborative manner. They were visual artists, performers, educators, and scientists. There was a natural connection between these creative people, and our collaborations had a strong impact on our community.
Those artistic endeavors took me to a wide variety of places, and I got an opportunity to meet people with all sorts of backgrounds. I realized that I was fortunate to receive an excellent education. I met thousands of young people who were more intelligent and more talented than I am, but somehow they had never been exposed to education that would spark an interest in the world around them.
So, I started incorporating science and engineering lessons into community art projects. Because of increasing interest, the workshops have grown into weekly series, then summer camps, and eventually we started developing lesson plans for after-school programs and workshops for the school to supplement their core curriculum. Looking back, it has been an excellent experience meeting all these young people whom I wouldn’t meet otherwise.
Although outreach programs exist, there is still a huge vacuum and demand for learning science and engineering in a way that is creative and focused on hands-on projects. We live in the most advanced age of human culture, so it is critical more than ever before to encourage creativity. A potential danger is to become passive consumers of information. The recent technological advances must be responsibly used, and young people must be encouraged to stay creative.
Young people possess wonderful talents. Our responsibility is to capture those talents and ensure that we are raising the next generation of inventors, thinkers, and makers who will enrich our culture and human knowledge. The challenge remains in how we provide the necessary educational resources equally to everyone, and how do we trick them into learning?
Can you tell us a little about Krsko Creative Group and how it came to be?
I chose the road less traveled and decided to trade the security of traditional academia or corporate research for complete independence and freedom. Krsko Creative Group is an umbrella of a variety of collaborative projects and services that we provide to our community. The word "group" refers to both a group of creatives working together as well as a diverse group of initiatives and programs.
The combination of art, science, and education provides opportunities to cross-pollinate and to innovate. We specialize in development of new nontraditional lesson plans. And we constantly test them. We just finished a series of lessons for middle-school students focused on the science of flight. They explored how organisms and objects fly in nature, and they created wonderful artistic wings, piecing them together feather-by-feather, and they created air-powered rockets.
Almost every project is inspired by nature. Even socially sensitive issues, such as human migration, are explored from the angle of how other organisms move around the globe. Recently, we were given a creative challenge to create a large mural portraying the diversity of the local community and discovering where the residents came from. Instead of focusing on the cultural heritage of the various groups, we investigated the global migratory patterns of many living organisms. During this process, the participants learned interesting facts about the dynamic nature of these populations, and as a result, together we have painted a mural full of migratory animals. More importantly, now they perceive the current issues in human migration from a completely different point of view.
This educational approach is critical for maintaining a healthy conversation in society. Therefore, education and creativity should be more accessible to all. That’s what we strive to provide and to maintain in the public domain. Public art is a great tool to achieve this goal. It transforms public spaces, promotes development of stronger, healthier, and smarter communities, and it keeps education and creativity free and accessible to all.
What’s your typical day like?
There is not a typical day, but when not traveling, a summer day starts at 4 a.m. in the office. That's when writing and planning seem to be the easiest. As soon as the sun shows up, a barefoot walk in the morning dew is irresistible. My studio is surrounded by a garden, wild berries, and a maple forest. Every day I discover a new source of inspiration just by sitting and listening.
The early part of the day is dedicated to planned tasks. The afternoon starts with a good and long lunch and continues in the studio with sketches, brainstorming, and prototyping of the new projects.
As the day starts with the sunrise, it also ends with the sunset. I try to dedicate the evenings to my family and friends.
What has been your favorite project with Krsko Creative Group?
Every project has a magical element that makes it unforgettable. The projects in new places with new friends have the strongest impact on my work. Currently, I am excited about an upcoming residency at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in Spring 2017. It is an interdisciplinary project that brings together a diverse group of departments: Arts Institute, Physics, Agricultural Engineering, and Human Ecology. Besides teaching a course, I will have an opportunity to create a new body of nature-inspired artwork.
Recently, I moved to a rural area and I am so fascinated by the daily explorations in my backyard and in my garden that I cannot help but find a way to share this with a larger audience. Technology, philosophy, and art can be further stimulated by the solutions found in nature.
Where do you see the intersection between science and art?
Personally, I see that everywhere. Art allows science to be more accessible and less intimidating. Science allows the artists to explore new ideas and horizons that lead to visionary innovations.
Every summer, I get the chance to work with young people in summer camps. It is a perfect environment to explore scientific disciplines in a playful and artistic way. It's inviting, exciting, and transformative. The most popular activities include field trips to local workplaces that focus on work that combines science and art. This has included the laboratories at NIH or the exhibition studios and shops at the Smithsonian Institution.
During these programs, it is rewarding to see how the students get inspired. For example, they combine microscopy and stencil making to create giant murals of tiny objects and patterns that are otherwise invisible. They learn about the microscopic world on their fingertips in an informal yet effective way. And at the same time, they create significant works of public art.
Which skill sets from the lab best apply to working in the art field and/or starting your own company?
The most important ability is to be creative and to pay attention to details. It helps to be organized and to document all ideas and findings. One needs to question everything and to be open to learning every day. One always works on new projects in both the lab and the art studio and often finds it necessary to fabricate new tools.
What activities or resources at the NIH helped prepare you for your career transition?
Ralph Nossal’s lab was the perfect place for a postdoctoral fellowship. Everyone was encouraged to research anything and everything that was thought provoking. Reading papers and attending presentations that were not necessarily related to one’s main research proved to be most educational and interesting. NIH is an unbelievable resource for young scientists. You should take advantage of the library, all the presentations, and develop as many collaborative partnerships as possible.
However, I chose to venture into the unknown mainly because it was necessary for me to experience and learn skills that have never been emphasized during my career development, such as financial management, client relations, marketing, and team development.
It was discouraging to witness my peers following the traditional path of graduate school, multiple postdocs, and then looking for employment opportunities. Some felt that the best years of their lives were somewhat discarded in this demanding process. Young minds should be freer to think and innovate.
What do you find most exciting about your career?
People, freedom, and the necessity to improvise.
The diversity of my projects allows me to meet wonderful people of a wide range of talents and knowledge. That is always a humbling, yet exciting experience. Whether they are scientists, business owners, or artists, they all have inspiring stories to tell and innovative ideas to share. For example, one of my clients is a company in the food industry that was started by a couple of immigrants from Eastern Europe 30 years ago. Today, it is still a family-owned business, but their healthy products are available in stores around the world, and the value of their business is approaching a billion dollars. The most inspiring fact is that the CEO still knows all the employees by name, and they still function as a huge family with a goal of making their customers healthy.
The knowledge that one can start from scratch with the right intention and build a company that improves lives and contributes to our collective culture is exciting. Self-reliance and a strong network create a sense of freedom. It is almost impossible to fail or to get stranded when one can rely on friends and collaborators. Freedom means different things for different people. Personally, I love the fact that I can be creative every day. Unexpected situations happen daily. However, they are welcome, because they require improvisation and learning new skills. And that is exciting.
What do you find most challenging?
The fact that a day has only 24 hours is always challenging. And dealing with the folks who resist creativity requires unnecessary energy.
Do you have any advice for fellows who are thinking about a career that is different than research?
One of the best pieces of advice I received in graduate school was to change fields within scientific research and beyond. When you enter a new field, you bring fresh thinking with you and increase the chances of making a significant discovery. We live in the best age of human history, surrounded by enormous resources. Don’t hesitate to reach out and make the best use of all of it. And finally, surround yourself with the right crew.