A glossary for art-science collaborators

Sometimes when artists and scientists collaborate, it seems like we are speaking different languages. These are just a few common terms that might help you feel less like you are in a foreign country when you walk into the lab or studio. Science terms selected here are mostly those used in biology with an emphasis on organismal and ecosystem sciences, along with a few terms related to academia, publishing, and statistics that are pertinent to a scientist’s life.

You can watch this page grow… and you can also take part! Because there are nearly 100 definitions so far, I have set up this page as a Wiki and invite you to send your input. Pick a word (or several), write a short definition (using an art lens and/or a science lens), then email me with “AS IF Glossary” in the subject line. Feel free to add new words and send editing suggestions for existing words, too. Thanks for your contribution!

Analysis / Analyze



Art: (pronounced ah-sahm-BLAZH, rhymes with collage) An artistic composition made from assembling various materials such as scraps, junk, and odds and ends.
Science: (pronounced uh-SEM-bledge) In ecology, a group of organisms that can be loosely grouped together for a reason such as that they are related, that they co-occur, or they are included in a particular study .  See also “Community.”

Pablo Picasso, Still Life (1914). Assemblage of wood scraps and tablecloth fringe.

Art: In painting and other 2D media, a landscape can be separated into foreground, middle ground and background.
Science: A peer-reviewed article in a science journal has a particular structure: introduction / background, hypothesis, methods, results (including analysis), and conclusion / discussion. The background provides information on prior work done related to the subject at hand, as well as its wider relevance.

Body (body of work / body of organism / body of article)
Art: The total output of a single artist (visual artist, writer, composer, etc.) or a substantial part of it. In this sense, it means the same as the French oeuvre and the Latin corpus.
Science: Body of an organism, regions of which may be separated into dorsal, ventral, anterior, posterior, distal, proximal, etc.

Central dogma
Science: The central dogma of molecular biology describes how genetic information flows in a biological system. A simple way of thinking about it is DNA makes RNA, and RNA makes protein.



Art: Drama and dramatic narratives sometimes follow Freytag’s five-act structure of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. In this structure, the climax is the turning point of the narrative.
Science: In ecology, it was historically thought that if left undisturbed, a community of plants, animals, and other organisms reach an equilibrium or steady state called a climax community, through ecological succession. The climax community was thought to comprise organisms best adapted to average conditions in the area. This concept of a steady state has fallen out of favor with ecologists, partly because habitats continue to change over long time periods. See also “succession.”


Science: In ecology, a community is a group of organisms that coexist in place and time and  interact. Communities of species share geography, whereas assemblages of species may or may not.

Art: In a 2D work of art, the composition refers to how the key elements draw the eye around the frame, how the elements relate to each other, use of negative space, etc.
Science: In ecology, species composition is the identity and percentage of all the organisms that make up a community.

A composition study by Jan Hamsik of a Jan van Eyck painting








Art: “Good artists copy, great artists steal, ” or so the saying goes. Artists often strive to make something new, but we are not creating in a vacuum – everyone has influences. Sometimes those influences leak out and the work isn’t really fresh at all, it’s derivative, meaning it borrows a little too liberally from the work of others.
Science: (Actually math but it’s used in science a lot) A derivative is a way to show the rate of change, using the slope of a tangent on a curve.

Graph with a sliding derivative line

Art: Creativity applied to a specific goal; conceptualization and creation of new ideas, objects, systems, etc. Innovative design often considers aesthetic, functional, economic, and other facets of the end product as well as the process.
Science: Experimental design is the plan for how a scientist sets up an experiment. Good experimental design keeps all variables the same except for the one being tested, includes a large sample size, and includes a control for comparison, among other things. See also “control.”


Dimension (2D, 3D, 4D)

Distribution (stats vs ecology)

Disturb / disturbance

Diverse / diversity




Art: Errors or mistakes are an important part of the creative process, often leading to even more interesting results. Beginning artists often worry too much about errors; mature artists know that the creative process requires working hard toward uncertain outcomes, taking risks, and opening oneself up for repeated failures. 
Science: Scientists often talk about error in the sense of statistics, that is, how much an observation deviates from its expected value. See also “deviation.”





Workable Fixative

Fix / Fixative
Art: Fixative is a spray used with pastel, charcoal, graphite and other powdery media to preserve artwork and prevent smudging. If workable fixative is used, one can continue to add more layers on top of the fixative.
Science: A chemical formula for stabilizing biological material. An 80% solution of ethyl alcohol is commonly used. Formalin and other substances containing formaldehyde are used as well but are highly toxic.




Art: When artists talk about a journal, they  commonly mean a notebook with sketches and notes that is used to work on creative ideas, personal thoughts, or a diary of  activities.
Science: When scientists talk about a journal, they commonly mean a peer reviewed publication, which has clearly structured criteria. See “peer-reviewed pubs.”

Impact (Impact factor / broader impacts)






Medium/ media
Art: Generally, an art medium refers to the primary materials used in making a work of art. Ceramics, dance, and film, are examples of different art media. For a painter, medium can also mean the type of binder in paint. For example, linseed oil is a medium in oil painting and gum arabic is the medium used in watercolor paint.
Science: In a microbiology lab, medium (or growth medium) refers to the type liquid or solid used to support the growth of microorganisms or cells. See also “culture” and “plate.”

In microbiology, different growth media are used for culturing different bacterial strains or fungal species.

Science: A habitat containing a moderate or well-balanced amount of moisture. See also “xeric” and “wet.”

Method/ Methods

Mil / Mill
Art: A ball mill is a way to grind clay or pigment to a fine powder.
Science: Sometimes “mill” is used as a shorthand pronunciation of the abbreviation ml or mL, short for milliliter.
Both: A mill is any type of device that breaks large objects into smaller pieces by grinding. Ground substances may be paint pigments, clay, minerals, biological samples, etc.

Model / model system / model organism




“Vase of_Flowers in a Stone Niche’ by Roelant Savery. Photo by Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Tidal pool zonation is a god example of different species in a community exploiting different ecological niches. Photo by Brocken Inaglory.



Peer-reviewed pubs
An academic journal that requires a panel of reviewers to approve the validity of the content before publication. In science, this peer review is especially critical, as the reviewers assess the validity of the experimental design, research methods, and analysis.


pH test papers are less accurate than a pH meter but are inexpensive and can be glued into a lab book. Photo by Frederico Abranches Quintão

PI (Principal Investigator)



Plot (Data vs. study site )


Post Doc






Release time
Science: Grants that fund science research can include funds that help scientists purchase release time, excusing them from teaching for a semester, a year, or more, or reducing their teaching load (the number of courses taught in a semester or year). See also “teaching.”

Review / reviewers


Rich / richness

Art: The word “safe” has the same general meaning that most of us use, but in recent years also has come to mean a certain level of respect for diversity. For example, in a student art critique, it’s important to create a safe space where everyone’s point of view is respected and heard, and the artist feels free to share personal information that might make them feel vulnerable.
Science: Before working in the lab or in the field, it’s important to learn safe practices. A lab or field technician may ask you to review a safety handbook, read a Material Data Safety Sheet (MSDS), or test equipment before using it. In this case, there are no stupid questions – it’s always good to ask if you don’t understand something.

Sample/ sample size








Preparing a vaccine under a fume hood using sterile technique

A magnetic stir bar at the bottom of the beaker spins when places on the stirrer. Photo by Ruhrisch



Science: Ecological succession is the process of change in an ecological community over time. Examples include recovery of a forest after a fire, pioneer plant species encroaching on a shore as a lake habitat dries up, or on a large time scale, the change in species structure after a mass extinction.





Vary / Variance


Art: Artists working in 2D media differentiate between wet media such as watercolor, gouache, or ink and dry media such as charcoal, graphite, or pastel.
Science: A site may be described as wet if it receives a lot of rainfall, has poor drainage, and/or its soils are often saturated. Wet habitats include wet woodlands, marshes, and fens. See also “mesic” and “xeric.”

Science: A xeric site is a dry site; xeric plants are adapted to these dry habitats and require very little moisture. See also “mesic” and “wet.”