Meet the Faculty: For biology professor, the world’s a splendid splash of color

Meet the Faculty: For biology professor, the world’s a splendid splash of color

Dr. Ellen France's watercolors.
D r. Ellen France has a hobby that allows her to ‘go with the flow.’ The flow of water, that is, creating amazing effects almost as if by chance.

France paints watercolors in her spare time—a delicate art that has won her ribbons and local praise. Mastering watercolors is more an act of ‘letting go,’ giving pigmented water the freedom to creep and seep on its own, winding and dripping in unintended directions.

It’s a world completely different from France’s day job, teaching and guiding experiments in the molecular cell biology lab at Georgia College. There, exactness is crucial, and hypotheses often lead to more questions—not a beautiful finished product grand enough to hang on a wall.

Child eating from a rice bowl.
Child eating from a rice bowl.
“I am happy when a painting turns out the way I thought it should, when I can see what I hoped for in a chosen subject,” France said. “Finishing a painting gives a sense of accomplishment and challenges me in a different way.”

France lives in Milledgeville with her husband, Physics Professor Dr. Ralph France, their daughter and a calico cat. She was born Yen Kang Cho in South Korea and migrated with her family to New York City (NYC) at age 16. Coping with a new language was difficult. France recalls not understanding much of her high school lessons the first few years.

The competitive education environment in South Korea, however, prepared France for the rigors of learning. She had an “intense, deep curiosity about everything” and soon excelled in math and science. But she also liked extracurricular subjects that demanded less language skills and more creativity. France joined the high school art club, then went on to major in biology at CUNY Queens College in NYC with a minor in studio art. She got her master’s and Ph.D. from the department of molecular cellular and developmental biology at Yale University in Connecticut.

Dr. France painting at home.
Dr. France painting at home.
In 2006, France joined Georgia College’s biology faculty. She teaches molecular and cellular courses like genetics, cell biology, cell signaling and cancer biology. It’s a “dynamic, interdisciplinary field that keeps changing and moving forward,” she said.

When students visit her office, France asks them what interests they have outside of school. She tells them she likes to cook and paint. This helps her connect with students, showing them “scientists aren’t just boring nerds.”

France enjoys passing on her love of science. In the lab, she guides students in the study of protein and lipid transport in cells. Her artistic eye helps France use graphic analogies and prepare visually appealing lectures. This, in turn, helps students prepare visually effective oral presentations in class. France also developed digital story boards for animations in a genetics textbook.

To France, science and art don’t seem all that different.

“Biology is such a visual world, whether you’re looking at organismal or molecular fields,” she said. “Any kind of art form often starts from careful observations of life. So, artists are good observers of the world.”

In order to paint, you have to have a keen eye for careful observation. But it also requires good eye-hand coordination—just like molecular experiments require careful observation and eye-hand coordination. Doing one definitely helps the other tremendously.
– Dr. Ellen France
“In order to paint,” France said, “you have to have a keen eye for careful observation. But it also requires good eye-hand coordination—just like molecular experiments require careful observation and eye-hand coordination. Doing one definitely helps the other tremendously.”

In high school, France experimented with various mediums like ceramics, acrylic and tempura painting. She explored more in college: 2D design, oil painting, sculpting and illustration. But she always found watercolors to be the most difficult, because mistakes can’t be corrected or obscured with more paint.

“It’s a very challenging medium, and I never felt good when trying to learn it on my own,” France said. “Watercolor really isn’t that forgiving, so I think everyone feels the pressure of doing everything perfectly the first time every time.”

Man at peach stand.
Man at peach stand.

France rediscovered watercolor five years ago by taking a workshop with Dana Thompson through Allied Arts in Milledgeville. She liked it so much, she stayed. France completes a watercolor each week during the 2½-hour class—about three or four paintings a month. That’s roughly 200 artworks since 2015.

Seaside watercolor.
Seaside watercolor.
Allied Arts displays watercolors from Thompson’s classes at group shows and its annual Oconee Art Exhibition. France has won ribbons at the Georgia National Fair Amateur Fine Art Division.

Her paintings are intricately detailed, true-to-life portraits, stills of animals and flowers and sweeping landscapes. France’s subjects invite you in—like a little child eating from a rice bowl, the woman collecting laundry from a clothesline or a man in front of an peach stand.

Time spent painting is her own; it helps her de-stress and relax.

“My day job requires constant thinking and troubleshooting,” France said. “For me, painting means meditation. I honestly don’t think about anything when I paint. It just goes blank."

"I’m grateful to have a day job as a science professor," she said, "so I don’t have to rely on my painting for financial support. I simply get to enjoy it.”

My day job requires constant thinking and troubleshooting. For me, painting means meditation. I honestly don’t think about anything when I paint. It just goes blank.
– Dr. Ellen France