The Action Potential Lab. Image credit: Justin Easton Media.
The Action Potential Lab. Image credit: Justin Easton Media.

A CENTURY AGO, the red-brick house on the corner of Christie and Davenport was a pharmacy. Now, this typical Torontonian abode contains a very non-traditional laboratory. The Action Potential Lab promises the (re)union of art with science. Within, the walls are lined with books, microscopes, bones, giant hand-sewn models of cells, and other curiosities. Curiosity is a central theme at the lab; a large corkboard (the Wonderwall) showcases any question students of the lab come up with. To the lab’s founder and director, Lisa Goldberg, questions like “Where does language come from?” exemplify what complex and heavy questions young minds are capable of asking. The bright space often bustles with activity from after-school programs, summer camps, adult workshops, and even birthday and bachelor(ette) parties. Exploration is key here, showcased through the numerous disciplines delved into, including physics, astronomy, biology, molecular gastronomy, sound engineering, and even the art and science of taxidermy. Driven by curiosity, IMMpress Magazine interviewed Lisa Goldberg to shed light onto how art and science meet at the Action Potential Lab.

Originally from Toronto, Lisa Goldberg studied fine arts at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. That is where the seed for the Action Potential Lab was sown. Lisa saw herself increasingly drawn towards science and used lab materials in her artwork. She generated living art by painting canvases with bacteria and fungi. Being able to work as an artist in a microbiology lab helped her learn about life in a lab, while remaining free from the constraints of her scientific counterparts. Her own work was not tied to the pressure of publications and funding, therefore allowing for more exploratory and creative freedom. Later, Lisa completed a Master’s degree in Biological Arts at SymbioticA, a one-of-a kind institute joining art, science, and technology at the University of Western Australia. Lisa leapt at the opportunity to share the joys of the art/science fusion through teaching a class at UWA, “Art and Life Manipulation”. This form of communication turned into a passion. Upon her return to Toronto, Lisa realized a space for what she wanted to do was missing, and thus the Action Potential Lab was born.

Fortuitously, the Toronto public school system was already attempting to incorporate art with science. The familiar STEM turns into STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics). The full implementation of STEAM in Ontario’s public school system is not a fast process, as it necessitates new programs and access to resources. The Action Potential Lab aims to fill the gap. At the lab, experimental learning is already possible; for example, students can learn about microbiology by making their own agar plates for streaking with environmental samples they collect. Lisa has also been invited to teach at schools, thus bringing the lab’s ideas to the classroom.

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The Action Potential Lab. Image credit: Justin Easton Media.

At the Action Potential Lab, and other groups such as DIYbio, it is important to find innovative ways of teaching science, and at the same time instil a sense of social responsibility. The idea is to train students to conduct their own experiments while taking a DIY approach. In this way, the students rely not on resources but on the power of improvisation, and they learn science need not be restricted to the laboratory environment. For Lisa, the role of art in this process is clear: “Taking scientific material and bringing it into the art world makes it less precious.” It becomes less tied to institutions and more accessible. Together with the DIY aspect, this is very empowering.

At the lab’s core lies an openness to explore and do things for the sake of observing what will happen. For primary school students, which also make up the majority of students, the art-science divide does not exist as it does for most adults. This age, characterised by inquisitiveness without judgement, is a prime time for tapping into any kind of research that has a playful outcome and do-it-yourself aspect. Art and science intertwine easily here. Lisa stresses the two fields really aren’t that different: at the root of both lies the quest to understand more about the world. Adults, on the other hand, have been taught over the years that art and science are in dichotomy.

At the lab, however, adult workshops become reminiscent of the sandbox days, where learning through playing and creating something with your own two hands came naturally. One of the most successful workshops was a squid dissection. It was the perfect merger of the science of anatomy and dissection, and the naturally provided artistic media — the squid’s ink — created an exciting and empowering learning experience. Allowing laymen to use a scientist’s tools, such as a scalpel and syringe, also invoked excitement mixed with intimidation.

Like a true scientist, Lisa already sees an opportunity for discovery and is playing with the idea of setting up a small study to see how her present young students may be influenced through this unique learning experience over time, and how they pursue future interests.

To find out more about the APL, check out their website or email Lisa at hello@actionpotentiallab.ca.

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