Women in science, do it with art

STEM subjects tend to intimidate, seeming inaccessible to the untrained eye. Dr Vanessa Camilleri, Dr Marie Briguglio, and Prof. Cristiana Sebu speak to Becky Catrin Jones about how they are challenging preconceptions by combining science and art at Science in the City, Malta’s national science festival.

It’s 2018. We live in a world where saliva samples sent out from the comfort of our own homes return to us with a sprawling outline of our ancestry and where some of the biggest social media influencers are robots. Despite this progress, utter the word ‘scientist’ and the outdated image of men in white lab coats still abound.

When advances in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) direct almost every aspect of life, why is it that so many still switch off the minute we mention science?

Researchers haven’t always had the best PR. In films and TV, science is often portrayed as a foreign language, gibberish to most. Real life is not always that much better, with some researchers needing to carry a jargon-busting dictionary around to translate what they study. To improve its reputation, we need a more creative approach that can break these stereotypes and bring science to the masses in a way that doesn’t send people running for the hills.

Science in the City (SitC), Malta’s science and arts festival, is the perfect opportunity for researchers at the University of Malta (UM) to bring their research to citizens in a way that doesn’t need subtitles.

Prof. Cristiana Sebu

Professor Cristiana Sebu (Department of Mathematics, UM) joined UM only three years ago, but has already made a firm mark. With a background in Applied Mathematics, she moved to the university as an Associate Professor, setting up a new course stream for undergraduate students in Biomathematics. Sebu’s interests lie in the practical applications of mathematics, particularly in biology, and in exploring how mathematics underpins essentially everything in life. ‘The links between mathematics and biology are strong,’ Sebu asserts. ‘We need to be able to make predictions and apply mathematical modelling to understand complex and intertwined biological systems such as signalling pathways in the body or ecosystems in the environment.’

That said, Sebu is still very aware that her love for mathematics is not often shared by the wider world. The word ‘mathematics’, however applied it might be, still strikes fear into the hearts of many. In an effort to counter this reaction and replace it with a more positive one, Sebu is joining the myriad of researchers at SitC and adding music to the mix.

‘Maths provides the building blocks and the structure of music,’ says Sebu. ‘Debussy, Mozart, Beethoven, and so many more used a mathematical pattern known as the Fibonacci Series in their scores.’ The Fibonacci sequence is an infinite pattern of numbers where the next number is the sum of the two previous ones, going from 1, to 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, where (1+1) = 2, (1+2) = 3, and so on. This sequence is closely related to what’s known as the Golden Ratio, an infinite number which can be found in so many examples throughout nature, from the composition of bee colonies to the shape of seashells and the patterns in sunflower seeds.

Debussy, Mozart, Beethoven, and so many more used a mathematical pattern known as the Fibonacci Series in their scores.

To highlight this elegance, Sebu has teamed up with jazz composer Diccon Cooper. The performance, entitled ‘Jazzing the Golden Ratio’, will feature presentations of the Golden Ratio in art, the environment, and the human body, accompanied by Fibonacci-inspired jazz music specially commissioned for the festival. Sebu herself will also be there, sharing her thoughts about the significance of this pattern in the world around us. ‘People see arts and science at odds, but the two are very much embedded in each other,’ Sebu states. ‘Hopefully we’ll be able to demonstrate the beauty of mathematics at Science in the City this year.’

Dr Vanessa Camilleri

The significance of this connection between arts and science is a notion shared by Dr Vanessa Camilleri (Faculty of ICT, UM). After working on a project combining Artificial Intelligence (AI) with behavioural studies at Coventry University, Camilleri found a niche research environment using immersive technology and design to influence our decisions and behaviours. Returning to the UM, she worked on a Virtual Reality (VR) headset allowing teachers to experience what it might be like for a child with autism in a classroom.

‘Unless you experience something, it’s very difficult to reach a deep level of empathy,’ Camilleri said of the idea behind the project. ‘We wanted to give [teachers] the opportunity to build new memories through VR, and help them understand the needs of the child in greater detail.’

For SitC this year, Camilleri is taking a different approach. The VR headsets are having the night off, and attendees will need nothing but their smartphones to see science brought to life in artistic form. Using Alternative Reality (AR) methods, she’s collaborating with artists Matthew Attard and Matthew Galea to bring a fourth Triton to the fountain for one night only through a project funded by Valletta 2018. By downloading the smartphone app, attendees will see the new fountain brought to life through their phones. In the build-up to the festival, the artists are using eye-motion tracking and heat mapping sensors on volunteers to see which bits of the current statue draw their attention. This is then translated into the final depiction, making the fourth Triton as eye-catching as the current three.

Prof. Cristiana Sebu

Lecturer Dr Marie Briguglio (Faculty of Economics, Management & Accountancy, UM) is also hoping to use art to bring her subject to life, albeit in a more sober manner. As a behavioural economist, Briguglio’s focus is on a population’s impact on environment and how we can police this. In particular, at SitC, she wishes to convey the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’—the notion that free or common assets such as public space or air are likely to be exploited by the masses due to sense of entitlement combined with lack of responsibility.

To do this, Briguglio recruited the expertise of Steve Bonello, a cartoonist with a political bent. ‘Working out how best to design environmental regulation underpins much of the research I am involved in. But it’s also very evident in many of the cartoons Steve draws,’ says Briguglio. ‘I soon realized that there was enough material to write a book.’ And so they did, combining the work of faculty with cartoons to produce the comic The Art of Polluting.

Home truths about how we personally damage the world we live in might not make for easy reading, but Briguglio hopes the fusion between arts and science will make this message easier to swallow. ‘It is intended to bring to light research on environmental pressures, status, and responses in a manner that is accessible and also fun.’ The book itself will be displayed as part of a larger instalment titled No Man’s Land, which will include a live action play, more detailed research, and even a free tree-planting stall.

Putting research on the main stage is no new concept to any of these three, and this year’s SitC is certainly not their first venture into science communication. The projects they’ve put forward have all stemmed from previous public engagement ideas. Camilleri worked with the same artists on an AR feature about Greek Mythology, and she regularly translates her research for mass media. A science communication event, Go For Research, which was spearheaded by the Faculty of Science and Directorate of Curriculum Management and aimed at the Junior Science Olympiads was where Sebu’s idea for highlighting the beauty of mathematics was born.

The passion for their subjects is infectious in all three researchers. Each one listed the prospect of inspiring their audience as their top goal for the festival. Shaking up science communication by presenting it in a way we wouldn’t expect, through musical maths, theatrical economics, and artistic AI, provides an opportunity for researchers and citizens alike to see science through a new lens. One where progress seems brighter and kinder.

  Author: Becky Catrin Jones


Mecon is an ongoing research project for the 2015 edition of the IASS EXPO, themed Future Visions which is to be held in Amsterdam between June and August 2015. The project is to design and build a structurally innovative, deployable pavilion in a bid to celebrate Future Visions in the field of engineering design and innovation. Mecon is the solution created by a team of five recently graduated architects.

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Colour Chemistry in Water

Written by Maria Cardona

Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels have increased dramatically in the last few decades. Famous for causing global warming, CO2 is also resulting in the acidification of seas and oceans. This disturbs the rich life of the marine ecosystem, which affects human communities dependent on this environment for their livelihood. For islands like Malta and Gozo, this problem is particularly important. This ‘silent crisis’ has attracted the X-prize Competition organisers who have set a $2 million dollar prize to be awarded to anyone that can develop stable, inexpensive, and precise acidity (pH) sensors to help understand the acidification of marine environments. At the same time, a European COST initiative (Supramolecular Chemistry in Water) is encouraging the design of water-soluble molecules which can recognise analytes. Most chemical sensors do not perform well in water.Continue reading


An interactive exhibition in the upper galleries of St James Cavalier aimed towards adults and children. It ran from the 28th September till the 28th October as part of the Science in the City festival. The exhibition brought science and art together with local artists exploring various scientific phenomena. How does the human mind work? How can a fly be compared to a human or be useful towards the future of the human race? How is a child born with a deformity? How does something stretch but get fatter?…
Each artist reflected on scientific research, and had the opportunity to work with Maltese scientists in their chosen area for inspiration and accurate results.
Exhibition Sponsors: St James Cavalier, Nexos Lighting Technology, Malta Arts Fund


How to get rid of fruit flies?

Sarah Maria Scicluna. Scientists consulted: Dr Edward Duca and Dr Ruben Cauchi who studies muscle wasting diseases using the fruit fly

Fruit flies are commonly viewed as pests by the agricultural industry and in households. Scientists view these insects differently, having studied them for over 100 years. They’ve found out how organs develop, how genes are inherited and learn more about obesity, diabetes and muscle-wasting diseases — these killed Chinese chairman Mao Zedong. At the University of Malta, Dr Ruben Cauchi is studying similar muscle-wasting diseases. Fruit flies share around 70% of human genes that cause disease, allowing scientists to use fruit flies to understand ourselves — an ironic twist.

The fruit flies used for this work were housed in lightbulbs modified to provide them with everything they needed to survive. The flies were flightless mutants, since their genetic code had been altered to stunt their wing growth. The mutation provides irony to its name and renders it unable to survive in the wild.  

The techibotsIMG_5418

Elisa Von Brockdorff

Say hello to the TechiBots! Technology is a welcome element to contemporary living, yet it can often create a society dependent on it. It can transform man into ‘programmed’ creatures, on which many decisions, procedures and strategies are often based. Systems collapse once technology fails, even momentarily! Agitation and anxiety soar!

Inspired by George Ritzer’s McDonaldization of Society, the TechiBots are constructed out of pill sheets, utilizing the structured material element as a basis for this rampant creature.


O Ye of Little Faith (heart)

Matthew Farrugia

We all need a heart to live. Your body dies within minutes if it stops. The heart is mostly pure muscle, it is around the size of your fist, and located a little to the left in the middle of the chest. The heart’s job is to pump blood around your body to provide oxygen and nutrients. 

This responsibility leaves the heart prone to complications. The most common complication is heart failure, which is when it cannot pump enough blood to the rest of the body. Most of the time this is because of a heart attack when blood flow is blocked, which is the most common kind of complication. Other more severe heart diseases include Angina which is when the heart isn’t getting enough blood, giving a severe pain in the chest.

The Human Brain: The only known structure that can study itselfIMG_5635

Michael Xuereb. Scientists consulted: Dr Mario Valentino and his team who study the mouse brain

When scientists research, examine, and map the brain, they are using the same organ they are studying. This simple fact is celebrated in Xuereb’s installation. He magnifies a single connection point from the trillions of connections in our brain called ‘connectomics’. Connectomics is used by scientists to project complex brain images. These connections transfer signals and commands that together compute our thoughts. These can be thoughts about what to wear, who we love, mathematical calculations or even reasoning our emotions.


IMG_54014.1868: The Theory of Heat

Adrian Abela, actors & performers: Tia Rejlić, Martha Vassallo, and Aidan Corlett. Scientists consulted: Prof. Kenneth Camilleri and his team who research biomedical engineering at the University of Malta.

4.1868 discusses various theories of how life began, such as that by Charles Darwin, using both a visible camera and a thermal imaging camera donated for this exhibition by Prof. Kenneth Camilleri and his team at the University of Malta. Adrian Abela interprets the traditional story of Melqart, the God of the Sea and Underworld, through a scientific eye. Thermal imaging cameras are used to diagnose disease and study medical problems. They detect radiation in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum (roughly 9,000–14,000 nanometres or 9–14 µm) and produce images of that radiation, called thermograms.The installation was a 40 minute video.

Brain study FITC-dext-and-GFEC-at-800nm_002

Scientists consulted: Video by Dr Mario Valentino and Dr Christian Zammit 

Dr Mario Valentino (University of Malta) has carried out extensive studies on mouse brains to find out how brain injury occurs and develops in humans. During this research, Dr Valentino captured striking 3D images of mouse brains, which were then displayed in St James Cavalier. The images are mainly focused on mouse vasculature on the surface of the brain and the close association of cells called astrocytes that maintain the blood-brain barrier, which is essential for the survival of neurons.


The Cuckoo’s Nest (brain)

Matthew Farrugia. Scientists consulted: Prof. Giuseppe Di Giovanni and his team, and Dr Neville Vassallo who are studying brain diseases at the University of Malta

The brain is a wonderful organ — what would we be without it?It is able to absorb information and hold memories and keep it stored for years to come. The brain is divided into various parts, all linked and working together. The brain is more complicated than the heart, and is prone to going wrong. Addiction, epilepsy, Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, are all illnesses the root of which lies in the brain.

Medical School: How does medicine define the body?IMG_5545

Raphael Vella. Scientists consulted: Textbooks used by medical students at the University of Malta

A series of fifty, small mixed media works were displayed on the walls of a classroom within a room in St James Cavalier, complete with blackboard. The images are photographic transfers on paper, reworked in ink, graphite and additional layers of Chinese paper. This installation of fifty framed, photographic images transports us from the beginnings of the power of medicine over the infant’s body, through the internalisation of medical knowledge via the mechanical components of ‘public health’ policies and systems, and ending with postmortem analyses that conceptualise murder and suicide in the cold language of science.How does medicine define the body? How is the body constructed in the image of medical textbooks? And how does the inaccessibility of medical knowledge to ordinary persons affect their understanding of their own bodies?



From DJ to videographer: Ruby on Science

Lily Agius, the artistic curator of Science in the City met up with DJ Ruby to talk about science and art. Ruby created a video for Science in the City that will be available in 2013 on scienceinthecity.org.mt

– Recently, you progressed from DJ to VJ (video jockey). Was it a hard transition?

No, not really, because it has taken quite a few years to get it in motion. For the past 5 years I have been working with videography on an amateur basis, but all of a sudden at the beginning of this year I decided to take it on professionally, and in a matter of few weeks I learned all that I needed to.

– Which was the art installation or event that you enjoyed the most? 

Certainly the live music session by Andrew Alamango and Mario Sammut a.k.a Cynga. It was electronically based, which is my cup of tea.

– One of the exhibits in the exhibition at St James presented fruit flies within their own eco system in bulbs. These organisms are used to investigate muscle-wasting diseases, obesity, cancer, diabetes, and more. Did you ever imagine that humans could be related enough to a fruit fly to use them to learn more about human disease?

I never knew about it before. I was mesmerised to find out at the exhibition at St. James. That was very interesting!

– How did you feel when interacting with the art: climbing the DNA staircase, or entering the echo-proofed room in Strait Street?

It was an amazing experience, not just as a regular person attending the event but also as film maker while on the job.

– Have you ever been to a festival of its kind in Malta or abroad before?

It was a first for me, and was very impressed about how professional the event was.

– Did you expect to see something more from the festival? Is there anything you would like to see at the festival next year?

Well, from my point of view it may be no surprise to hear me say: more music.

– How would you describe the audience of the Science in the City Festival?

People of all ages and from all walks of life were there — it was certainly an event for everyone!

– Do you think that art can be used to explain science?

Yes it can, Science in the City proved that.

– How does science play its part in your own life?

I am very into IT, computers, software, gadgets and electronic music/visual. Technology is all around me and with me everyday, and forever evolving and improving. 

Part of Science in the City, Malta’s Science and Arts Festival

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For more information on DJ Ruby: www.pureruby.com or www.facebook.com/djruby. For Ruby’s videography and visual work: www.facebook.com/puremediamalta