Background in brain science and theatre gives new professor a unique perspective on bridging disciplines

Yelena Gluzman hopes to bring a collaborative, experimental approach to exploring the interrelations of science, technology, society and the environment.


U of A assistant professor Yelena Gluzman is drawing on her experiences with neuroscience and theatre to teach a new course on how science, technology, society and the environment are interrelated. (Photo: Ryan Whitefield)

For Yelena Gluzman, science and theatre have much in common. And she’s intimately familiar with both.

That makes her a great fit as the newest addition to Media and Technology Studies in the Faculty of Arts, where she’s teaching a new course on the interrelations of science, technology, society and environment.

The similarities between science and drama might not quickly come to mind. But Gluzman notes drama rehearsals involve experimentation before landing on specific performance choices. In a similar way, the scientific method is, ideally, open to improvisation, as different lines of inquiry are pursued to test a hypothesis.

Gluzman hopes to bring a collaborative, experimental approach to science and technology studies at the U of A, a trend that has recently emerged in a discipline that traditionally positioned “historians, philosophers and ethnographers outside the scenes they’re analyzing,” she said.

“Yelena models exactly the research-creational drive that I think the university needs now more than ever,” said Natalie Loveless of the Department of Art & Design.

“Between global climate crisis, pandemic and massive university restructuring, our world is changing at every scale of existence. If there was ever a time to reject our disciplinary anxiety and propriety and all of that, and just work together, it’s now.”

As I understood from my research, the U of A was a place that fostered interdisciplinarity, particularly the Faculty of Arts, so that was huge for me

Yelena Gluzman

Yelena Gluzman
(Photo: Ryan Whitefield)

Gluzman began her career studying biopsychology at Barnard College.

“I was very dedicated to brain science,” she said, “but at the end of college I accidentally got roped into directing a play by a friend — without any background in theatre whatsoever — and that changed everything for me.”

“Coming out of experimentation in the lab, the rehearsal situation became very interesting for me as a kind of experimental situation.”

Struck by her own awakening of sorts — and the power of serendipity — Gluzman switched fields, returning to Columbia University for an MFA in directing. That was followed by a decade of making experimental theatre and “exploring it through doing it.”

In one piece called School for Salomés — inspired by the American Salomé dance craze of the early 1900s — four women actors playing Salomé students would be asked by a teacher to perform tasks such as, “Say goodbye to your mother but actually say hello to the world.” 

“These tasks would change every rehearsal and performance, so the actors would be always forced to visibly improvise as they adjusted and changed their performances in response to the excruciating range of demands,” said Gluzman.

Life then took her to Japan, where she landed a job at the University of Tokyo teaching English-language scientific communication. It was a time when developments in cognitive neuroscience were pointing to what happens in the brains of theatre audiences.

“Scientists discovered ‘mirror neurons’ — cells in your brain that are activated, not only when you do something, but when you see someone else do something. There were all of these claims that finally we’ve found the biological basis for what happens in the theatre.

“I was skeptical about this but suddenly felt I was very involved in all of these questions.”

So Gluzman went back to the lab, this time to pursue a PhD in communication and science studies at the University of California, San Diego.

“I wanted to take up what was happening in science in my performance work in a deep way,” she said, “and to have institutional support, so I could initiate collaborations with scientists and see what was actually happening in labs.

“Just as I was interested in exploring the conditions of the performance situation, I was also interested in exploring the conditions of the cognitive neuroscience experiment,” she said. 

“How did cognitive neuroscience labs actually, in practice, stage social situations in the lab so they could ask questions about what was happening in the brain during social tasks — like recognizing the emotions or intentions of another person?”

UC San Diego also did pioneering work in science and technology studies, where Gluzman finally found her place among those asking penetrating questions about experimental situations, “thinking about them historically and culturally, as places where things happened that mattered.”

She also found a field called ethnomethodology, a subdiscipline in the sociology of science in which, she said, “You’re looking at the real world, at ordinary interactions, and at how people make sense to each other.”

When she saw the posting last year for an academic position at the U of A, it seemed like one more path she was destined to follow.

“As I understood from my research, the U of A was a place that fostered interdisciplinarity, particularly the Faculty of Arts, so that was huge for me.”

Beyond breaking down silos, Gluzman would like to explore with her students some big, global questions about what’s happening in science communication. What accounts for the current avalanche of misinformation? How is trust in science established? And how do we confront the “replication crisis,” a growing awareness over the past decade that many scientific studies are difficult or impossible to replicate or reproduce?

That hunger for answers that can only be explored in the space between disciplines is what excites Gluzman most about her newfound home.

“These signature areas at the U of A — the fact that there are mechanisms that already exist institutionally to gather people from across faculties — for me, that’s everything,” she said.

“Increasingly, scientists themselves are interested in making their work more transparent, in reconsidering the validity of their methods in respect to their claims, and in working in more playful, open and inclusive ways.

“I hope to expand and develop these sorts of critical collaborations at the University of Alberta.”