Creativity Vault

Faculty Spotlight: Sarah Hanson, Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology, Reflects on Creativity and Biology

The Course and the Questions

The course was the Senior Capstone in Molecular Biology, which is a class that's taken exclusively by molecular biology majors that are in their final year at CC. In this class, faculty choose a topic to focus the course on, and I selected the topic of “The Molecular Genetics of Identity”. My goal with the class was to have the students use their critical scientific analysis skills to interrogate some of the work that's been done in the past, and is still going on, where investigators have been exploring the genetic contributions to various aspects of human identity, such as race, gender, and sexuality, and critiquing what the limits are, what genetics can and cannot tell you about identity. We looked at the ethics of the way those questions have been asked and at the methods that are used to study those questions in humans.

Something that I really wanted to help the students do was to find different ways to look at these questions. It's a topic that has huge interdisciplinary implications. I really wanted them to break out of the scientific box and think about it from other perspectives – to have the students think, not just about some more in-depth topic in molecular biology, but also to have them think about some of these social, ethical implications of doing molecular biology. What questions have been asked about this by molecular biologists or geneticists? Why were they asking them? Why were they asking them in certain ways? And focusing on breaking down where the biases come in in the scientific field, especially when it comes to issues like human identity.

Collaborations with Creativity & Innovation at CC

I was excited to have some visiting artists come to the class to work with my students. Reiko Yamada, uses sound pieces as a way of exploring scientific data. She worked with the students to get them to think more creatively about the topics that they were exploring.

Then Kathryn Hamilton, also known as Sister Sylvester, came into the class to share with the students some examples of ways that artists have examined similar questions - questions about human identity, and particularly, the interaction between science and human identity. She gave some really fantastic examples that got the students to think about a completely different creative process approach.

The students got to learn from the artists in these workshops and they also had the opportunity to work with them on a small group basis to develop projects where they were creating digital archives (collecting pieces of art, writing, videos, all kinds of different media) that explore their topics from different perspectives. Reiko and Kathryn also gave them critical feedback about the types of pieces they were finding and how they were putting them together and how they spoke to one another - how you could find examples of synergy to explain ideas by looking at it from these different perspectives.

One of the great things about working with artists in my classes is they're coming at this scientific information from a completely different perspective and looking at it through a different lens. And they don't have the same background knowledge in molecular biology that the students do, so both in the conversations that students were having with the artists and in these archives that they were putting together, the real challenge for the students was to find ways that allowed for different types of audiences to have entry point into the topics.

When they created their archive, they actually created three different sets of pieces that were intended for three different audience levels. One was meant for fellow molecular biology students, their peers, the people that do know the vocabulary and the methods that are used for studying these questions. The second one was targeting adults who are not necessarily scientists. So a broader, but adult, audience. Then the last category was to make an archive for third graders. One where you really have to think about what a third grader knows or what might they already be thinking about human identity – and how can you help them understand how genetics might influence identity and what the limitations are.

The Importance of Communication 

The artists were really invaluable in giving them feedback on thinking about it from these different perspectives and thinking about how you change the way you talk about it or how you even introduce the topic, based on who your audience is. I think it's an absolutely, essential skill for a scientist to have, no matter what type of field they go into once they finish at CC.

For example, a lot of molecular biology students are interested in things like healthcare, and you can consider the way that a healthcare worker might explain what's going on to a patient, right? You might have patients with a wide variety of backgrounds and ages, with different levels of experience with science. You have to really think about and gauge where that audience is and adjust your explanation accordingly. But it's not just limited to healthcare workers. If you're in a research field, I think things like the COVID pandemic have demonstrated how important it is to effectively communicate science so that people understand why certain public health measures are critical. It’s really important for scientists to be able to relay information very clearly and in a way that instills confidence in the audience, and helps them to better understand what's going on.

The Development of a New Course: Kitchen Sink Biology

In working with Kathryn, we thought about how cool it would be to do a scientific project in parallel with a creative project, where you're asking the same questions from these two disciplines. And that’s where the idea for our Block A course, “Kitchen Sink Biology” came about. I'm really excited to collaborate with her and do that in a very direct way, as the students are actually collecting data. So they'll be collecting data using scientific methods and then thinking about how their methodology contrasts with a creative process and how they might work with that same question or with that same data from this creative perspective. I'm excited to continue to explore this in course work and find opportunities to help students make those connections between disciplines.

The idea for the course built up as I was meeting with Kathryn, preparing for block four. Talking with Jessica Hunter-Larsen (Associate Director of Creativity & Innovation) and Kathryn Hamilton, we got this idea for a class that incorporates both scienific and creative processes. And then we got Ryan Platt (Associate Professor of Theatre & Dance) involved. It’s one of those things that just sort of snowballed. This idea was kindled and then kept growing and growing. And so now, it's going be this really great collaborative block that we're going do this summer. I got to know Kathryn through Creativity & Innovation and so I'm really grateful that we've had this opportunity to continue to work and develop on this idea.




Creativity & Innovation at CC joined Innovator in Residence Jon Cohrs ('00) in a virtual discussion of his most recent film project BACK WATER, an award-winning a documentary about the Anthropocene. Back Water tells the story of a civilization's new frontier through the experiences of a group of people as they forge the New JerseyMeadowlands by canoe and explore a strange new landscape created by industry.

Now you can watch the virtual discussion here!

Colorado College students, staff and faculty can access the film through the CC library using this link: BACK WATER

Participants outside the CC network can find the film via Amazon and Apple TV+.

About Jon Cohrs:

Jon Cohrs

Jon Cohrs is the founder of Bear Call Mastering, a mastering and post-production sound studio based in Kingston,NY. He has worked with artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija, Tony Conrad, Cory Arcangel, Tara Jane O'Neil, Laurie Andersonand mastered the soundtrack for the Oscar nominated film, 'Nebraska.' His work has been shown at Ars Electronica, FutureEverything, 2010 Vancouver Olympics, The Total Museum Korea, Art in General, Eyebeam among others.Cohrs has taught as a lecturer of Media Art at SUNY Purchase College, Parsons School for Design, Pratt Institute, NYUITP, RPI, and the Finnish Academy of Fine Art (KUVA), and has served as a member of The New Museum's incubator, New Inc. He currently works as a researcher at the New York Times.

About Creativity & Innovation's Innovator in Residence Program
The Innovator in Residence program aims to embed creative professionals from a range of fields deeply into the Colorado College community. The Residency allows for teaching opportunities and collaborations - both structured and spontaneous - and helps students to make connections between diverse, cultures, ideas, and creative problem-solving strategies through formal and informal learning opportunities. Although the Innovators in Residence represent a variety of fields, they share characteristics of flexibility, curiosity, and the desire to work across disciplines.

For more information about the film discussion or Creativity & Innovation's Innovator in Residence program, please contact Jessica Hunter-Larsen: 719-389-7083.



2019 Baccalaureate Speech, Professor of Creativity & Innovation Jane Hilberry


Report an issue - Last updated: 06/20/2022