Coming to Oxy with plans to pursue chemical engineering, the liberal arts took Lynn He in unexpected directions. Her classes and professors helped her discover new passions and blend them with existing ones, forging a path she says better reflects who she is.
After a semester analyzing the works of Michaelangelo in Professor Eric Frank’s art history class, Lynn He and her classmates were finally in Italy for the course’s field component. As Frank and his students waited in line to see the Sistine Chapel, Lynn recalled a film they had watched back at Oxy about the late 20th-century restoration of the ceiling frescoes.
The project, intended to remove accumulated layers of grime and candle smoke, was controversial. Critics called the process overzealous, damaging to the art and ultimately misaligned with the artist’s true intentions. Lynn, a junior chemistry major, was befuddled.
“I kept thinking, ‘Why are they arguing? Why don’t they do some more scientific analysis?’ There are so many quantum instruments you can use to characterize pigments, metals, everything. You can do a sort of biopsy and see all the layers.”
Lynn’s experiences visiting ancient sites in Italy proved to be pivotal. Through her immersion in the “preservation landscape” of Rome and Florence, she discovered the field of conservation science. More importantly, she realized that it was a perfect marriage of her background in materials science and growing passion for art history.
“I thought, ‘Wait, what if I want to do that?’ I’d like to be part of memorializing things and being faithful to the artist’s original intent. I could suddenly see how applicable it was.”
Refining Plan A
After attending a very competitive high school outside of Boulder, Colo., Lynn wanted something different.
“I knew that a small liberal arts college would help nurture me and offer the close attention I felt like I needed.”
Her goal was to study chemical engineering through Oxy’s 3-2 program, enter a field that would provide a good job and earn a comfortable amount of money. Lynn took a general chemistry class with Professor Mike Hill and loved it. The following semester, Hill invited her to join his lab and spend the summer researching non-invasive alternatives to cartilage surgery using electro-chemistry.
“His mentorship really made me want to be a chemistry major,” Lynn says. “I was passionate about the research project, and the students in the lab were so close. It was almost a familial bond.”
Lynn presenting her chemistry research at the 2018 URC Summer Research Conference.
A requirement turns into a passion
As a science major, Lynn admits that she didn’t immediately see the direct application of studying art. As a sophomore, she enrolled in Professor Kelema Moses’ class “Memory & Place in Post-WWII Architecture” to meet a distribution requirement. But it didn’t take long for her to discover the science of visual analysis.
“It wasn’t just, this is pretty, that’s not,” Lynn says. “There’s a visual language that makes you feel something. I came to realize how you could decode that language to anchor analyses in art history and critical theory.”
Lynn was struck by a new awareness of the meaning embedded within architecture and the built environment, and how that influences how people think and live. She says the class was one of the best she took at Oxy, and she was inspired to explore art history further.
Exploring departments and experiences that I didn’t initially identify with or expect to encounter has created so much richness in my education. I think that’s why I feel confident applying to things now—I have a perspective and something to say.”
Translating passions into experiences
Back on campus after Italy, Lynn found herself at a bit of a crossroads.
“I was headed along this route of getting a Ph.D. in chemistry, but then my excitement about art history sort of interrupted that.”
In the midst of an ‘What do I do with my life’ mini-crisis, she went to talk to Moses. When Lynn mentioned her newfound interest in art conservation, Moses told her about the Andrew W. Mellon Opportunity for Diversity in Conservation. Lynn jumped on the application and was accepted as part of a small cohort.
Intended to promote diversity in the field of cultural collections conservation, the two-week summer program included hands-on conservation workshops, field trips, and meetings with collections managers and curators.
“Those two weeks definitely changed my life,” she says.
The experience encouraged Lynn to apply for a Fulbright grant to study traditional Chinese conservation methods. She worked closely with Professor Yurika Wakamatsu, an expert in East Asian art, on her application. This fall she will conduct research at Sichuan University, using spectroscopic analysis to examine an archive of thousands of traditional Chinese paintings.
Lynn and fellow participants in the summer 2018 Andrew W. Mellon Opportunity for Diversity in Conservation at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
The liberal arts effect
Lynn says she can’t begin to estimate how her liberal arts education transformed her life.
“Exploring departments and experiences that I didn’t initially identify with or expect to encounter has created so much richness in my education. I think that’s why I feel confident applying to things now—I have a perspective and something to say. Thanks to my varied experiences I have this nuanced approach, and that’s my value in tech, in art, or whatever.”
The liberal arts have also strengthened her confidence as an individual.
“I’m so glad I didn't just do a chemical engineering degree. I’m so much happier, and I feel like my path is more reflective of who I am.”