Josh Russell: Art + Science


It’s not often that you meet someone who is incredibly skilled in both left- and right-brain activities, so maybe that is what sets Josh Russell apart from the crowd.

As a doctoral student in Cell and Molecular Biology, Russell is, unsurprisingly, very talented at such analytical tasks as laboratory research. But that he is also a highly talented painter whose work hangs in several buildings across campus might come as a surprise to many. Add to this the fact that Russell is a nontraditional student who began to study Biology only after working on campus at UT, and you will begin to see how unique Russell truly is.

And Russell’s research interests are just as unique: trying to find the molecules in genes that are involved in how we sense humidity.

“Scientists have figured out how we see, touch and taste, but there is basically nothing published on what genes are involved in sensing humidity,” says Russell.

Working with c elegans, small roundworms that are sensitive to both wet and dry conditions, Russell has been trying to decipher how they sense humidity. Funded by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, Russell is of the mind set that science should be shared and made relevant and understandable to the general public.

“I want to do outreach to the community,” says Russell. “That’s always been my intention. I’ve been trying to set up outreach ventures since I came here (in 2008).”

View interview of Josh Russell

It seems as though Russell is finally getting the opportunity to do just that. The project “Explain your PhD Thesis to a 12-year-old” was something Russell conceived of awhile ago, but has recently picked up steam when friends of his started ‘Science in the Pub’ at the Cactus Cafe this past June as a way to share science with others and asked Russell to present.

“Another guy came to talk about how the general public doesn’t understand science and we are failing our kids, so I decided to talk about (the Explain Your Thesis project),” says Russell.

“I got good feedback, people got excited about it.”

Russell then teamed up with nonprofit Austin Partners in Education, who helped identify local middle schools where graduate students can go and present.

“We just started this, and we want to make it as good as we can,” says Russell. “(We want to) make it relevant to the kids. Once we do that, the idea is to scale it up and get more people involved. Graduate students love to talk about their theses, and this gives them more of an opportunity to do that.”

Russell says that his graduate experience at UT has been a perfect way for him to marry his passions for art and science.

“What I wanted to study in grad school was sensory neuroscience; its our window to the world, how we sense it,” says Russell.

“As an artist you try to live at that window: how do you sense, how do you think about things? As a scientist, it’s...kind of the same attitude; what the limits are, what you know, what you can do to put something together that is meaningful to you and that other people can get something from.”

“I spend all my time getting to think at the things that are most interesting to me,” says Russell. “I feel really lucky.”

January, 2011

by Lauren Edwards

Josh Russell

Josh Russell

Cell and Molecular Biology doctoral student

Awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship


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