When art meets science

How Stephanie Beaupark fuses modern chemistry with Indigenous science and art

The University of Wollongong graduates whose passion for science is helping change the world.

Stephanie Beaupark has loved science for as long as she can remember. A Ngugi woman, she recalls learning about taking care of Country as a child and being a “little environmental activist.”

“I remember the biggest passion of my childhood was protecting the little creek next to my home from council and neighbours who wanted to fill it up, and I succeeded! That creek is still there today,” she says.

That passion drew her to the University of Wollongong, where she combined a Bachelor of Science (Chemistry), a Bachelor of Creative Arts (Visual Arts) and a minor in Archaeology.

“When I enrolled in my undergraduate degree, I knew I wanted to study art and chemistry. At the time I didn’t really know how these worlds could link but I went for it anyway.”

Stephanie found that link when completing her Honours year, researching the elements that make up the colours of natural dyes she used in her art.

“Over time as I was sitting between art and science, and in the back of my mind these burning questions started forming in my brain that I simply had to know. This ended up being the starting point for my PhD.”

Now in her second year of her doctorate, her thesis not only analyses the chemistry that makes up Indigenous art, but how to bridge the gap between Western scientific ideas and First Nations knowledge systems.

“This project has a life of its own and has needed time to really sit with and figure out all the little links between the chemistry, the art and the Indigenous science. I am rethinking how we approach natural products chemistry on this Country, so how can these practices in the lab be altered to align with Indigenous cultural values of being mindful of our footprint as scientists – both with environmental and social impact,” she explains.

“Overall, I am taking an Indigenist approach in blurring the Western framework of separating the disciplines of art and science. When you deeply look at it there is not much difference between the two and Indigenous people have known that for the thousands of generations we have walked this Country.”

Stephanie explained that conceptualising her thesis was simple – the difficulty was in implementing Indigenous cultural practices in a Westernised research space.

“The initial ideas were the easy part; it got a lot harder in the actual process of bringing them together. The more challenging part is creating a project that has cultural values and Indigenist ways of doing embedded throughout, as the Western systems are not built for Indigenous people and the way our research works,” she says.

“Working in this way that involves Indigenous people in the right way, following cultural protocol, takes a lot of time, relationship building, and funds to ensure there is an authentic exchange of benefit. So, the most challenging part is feeling the differences in how I know the project needs to be approached to what is available and expected for PhD projects.”

In the next stage of her PhD, Stephanie will speak with Indigenous artists about their own knowledge of natural dyes and weaving, which she hopes will help encourage more young women and First Nations peoples to get involved in science.

“Science is inherent to everything we do and everything we are. It is so beneficial to have more people working in science, especially from minority groups. That increased diversity is helping shift cultural bias surrounding science and having a wider range of perspectives and life experiences really helps increase creativity within sciences,” Stephanie says.

And for those who are torn between scientific and artistic endeavours, Stephanie is proof that they are not mutually exclusive.

“Just start somewhere and see where it takes you,” she says.

“Art is scientific and science is creative, so even if the two don’t end up being fully combined, having knowledge of multiple disciplines creates new pathways in your brain. I have definitely noticed that sitting between art and science has helped with my problem-solving skills and the way I communicate.”