Both sides of the brain: Undergraduate taps into art, math, and research for a unique path of study
December 2, 2015
BLACKSBURG — Sarah Hammer came to Virginia Tech as a University Studies major, giving her time to determine what to study. But it didn't take her long to find her niche, or at least part of it.
Hammer, now a junior double majoring in studio art in the School of Visual Arts in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies and mathematics in the College of Science, fell in love with her fundamental art classes her first semester. Four months into school, Hammer went through a portfolio review and was accepted into the art program.
“I really wanted to be in studio art because they have a specific focus called creative technologies. That’s what I really wanted to do,” she said.
One year later, as a sophomore, Hammer added her second major.
“[Math] was always my strongest subject,” Hammer explained. “When I came to Tech undecided and not knowing what I wanted to do, I added the art major, but I really wanted the balance between the math and the art.”
Combining her left and right brain tendencies, Hammer connects the majors to other aspects of her life as well. She got a head start on this path in high school, when she began working at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.
Hammer attended the Roanoke Valley Governor’s School, where she was given the opportunity to dedicate one month of her senior year to a research project of her choice.
“I came into contact with a research scientist, and he was telling me about all of the different projects he was working on and let me decide which one sounded the most interesting to me,” she said. “He was talking about this one project where he was doing brain imaging and 3-D reconstructions and I thought that it sounded fun. I dove head first into it.”
The neuroscientist, who would become her mentor for the next three years, was immediately impressed by Hammer.
“I treated her just like I would treat any undergraduate coming into my lab,” said Michael Fox, an associate professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. “She picked something that no one in the lab had ever done before, which was kind of scary for me because of course I wanted her to succeed.”
“I went into it not really knowing anything about neuroscience, so basically he taught me everything I know,” Hammer said.
“During this project, Sarah was able to study biology at the highest resolution possible and she did it through serial images. She had something like 400 images in a row that she would trace different elements of the brain through. She had to learn how to read all of those images, which is really difficult; it is a skill that takes years and years to teach graduate students and this was the first time she had done it,” Fox said. “She had never asked for my input and she was able to think about what the images needed to show, representing how to convey that to someone who maybe wouldn’t understand. Maybe that’s kind of the artist in her – it was amazing.”
Although she has now taken a break from working in Fox's laboratory, Hammer stays busy combining her interests. She currently works at the Moss Arts Center, and is an active ambassador for the School of Visual Arts.
“Those connections with the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute really made me want to go to Tech to begin with,” Hammer said. “There are a lot of ways that art and science are connected in my classes now. It’s kind of exhausting for my brain to be honest. It’s a lot of ups and downs, but I try to keep it balanced.”
Fox explained that his time spent working with Hammer made it very easy to complete one of the most important roles that he takes on as a mentor: writing her a letter of recommendation.
“From my perspective, she is the most well-rounded individual I have ever seen in the lab. Whether she ends up in science, or in math, or in art, she is going to take all of that with her and has the potential to change any one of those fields because of her different perspectives,” Fox said. “And I think that is what is amazing about Sarah, and what the university strives for. That's why Virginia Tech develops these innovative interdisciplinary programs, to help students excel.”
Hammer would eventually like to get a doctorate, but she is taking her last couple of years at Virginia Tech one step at time.
“I’m an art major, I’m a math major, and I’m a research scientist; but if you had asked me five years ago, I wouldn’t have said any of that,” Hammer said. “I’m just waiting for new opportunities to arise and just going with the flow for now.”
Written by Leslie McCrea, a senior majoring in multimedia journalism in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.