St. Olaf College | News

Student brings mathematical modeling into the ceramics studio

Taisa Kushner ’14 is using an independent research course this semester to develop predictive mathematical formulas for ceramic glazes. “Most artists mix things without really knowing what’s going on and cross their fingers, hoping it turns out. I want to use chemistry and math to try and make sense of all that,” she says.

Most ceramics artists depend on traditional glaze recipes that work, but Taisa Kushner ‘14 knows from experience that the slightest changes in timing or temperature can literally make or break a piece.

This semester, Kushner is putting her nose to the grindstone — or in this case, the pottery wheel — to develop predictive mathematical formulas for ceramic glazes through a very unique independent research course.

Her project will bring her talent for solving problems with mathematical modeling to the Art Department as she studies the chemical foundations of crystalline glazes that make clay pieces into brilliant works of art. Kushner hopes numerical formulas will help better predict the outcome of certain glazes well before they reach the kiln.

“There’s something magical in how a bucket of drab brown glaze can turn to gold with a little time in the kiln,” Kushner explains.  “It’s experimentation right out of a chemistry lab — in the ceramics studio.”

Finding inspiration in the lab
Kushner’s summer research opportunities proved an unexpected catalyst for her interdisciplinary interests.

Dividing her time between the Mathematical Biosciences Institute at Ohio State University and the University of California, Irvine, Kushner alternately attended classes and performed research on proteins that regulate cell growth and development, focusing on their relation to tracking and treating cancers such as Glioblastoma Multiforme, the most common and aggressive form of brain tumors.

The connection between cancerous growths and pottery glazes may not seem immediately apparent, but the time she spent at UC Irvine brought Kushner into contact with Professor of Mathematics John Lowengrub, who opened her eyes to the possibility of incorporating mathematical formulas into the ceramics studio.

“Professor Lowengrub’s work on molecular crystal growth models intrigued me; for a while, I wanted to examine the chemistry behind ceramic clay bodies, but with his help I was able to bring mathematics into the mix,” she explains.

“What changes chemically when you fire a piece in the kiln? Most artists don’t question it; they mix things without really knowing what’s going on and cross their fingers, hoping it turns out. I want to use chemistry and math to try and make sense of all that.”

Writing formulas and making pottery
Kushner’s search to find the answers to these questions begins at the molecular level, tracing crystal growth from formulas on a page to realities in the studio.

“It’s as delicate and unpredictable as snowflake formation,” she says.

While she acknowledges the unique challenges she faces, Kushner ultimately believes her work will lead to a better understanding for artists and scientists alike.

The majority of Kushner’s time at this point is devoted to meticulous preparation, creating hundreds of test pieces that will eventually become the testing grounds for discovering how glazes develop. Each firing can last more than 24-hours — more often than not with less-than-satisfactory results.

“The whole process is pretty time consuming,” she admits, “but I have to make the most with what I have. For instance, it’s especially difficult to monitor crucial temperature changes when you’re working with a kiln fired up to over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The thermometer is really estimating at that point; it’s far from an exact science, but it’s what I have to work with.”

Interdisciplinary interests
Despite its computational foundations, Kushner’s work is clearly inseparable from the Art Department, which helps to explain why she is working under the supervision of Associate Professor of Art and Art History Ron Gallas and Assistant Professor and Technical Assistant in Art Kathryne Fisher.

This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, as Kushner’s interest in bringing together seemingly disparate fields extends to her major; on top of mathematics, she will be one of the first students at St. Olaf to graduate with a concentration in mathematical biology.

“Mathematical biology involves bringing together work done in a biology lab with mathematical modeling. Simply put, biological experiments are often expensive and difficult to control. With math models, you can test multiple hypotheses theoretically to direct work in the bio lab,”  she says. “Now I’m just taking it all a step further and letting science help the Art Department, too.”

Kushner’s research has given her the unique opportunity to work beyond the bounds of her major.

“I’m so happy with my major because it gives me the chance to incorporate more interdisciplinary interests,” she says. “There’s so much you can learn about other fields if you just take the time to look through a different lens, embrace another point of view.”