Perhaps Corban Swain has inherited his idiosyncratic nature from his hometown. Huntsville, Alabama, has a dynamic history in the deep south: Originally a small cotton mill town, its selection as a post-WWII missile development site catapulted it into the space race. Later, it became an engineering enclave and hotspot for biotechnology.
Corban, too, defies stereotypes and ably wrangles his varied identities, as an artist and a scientist, a perfectionist and a procrastinator, a poet and an engineer, and — what in his youth sometimes seemed to him to be a dichotomy — an “intellectual brother.”
Now a first-year PhD student in biological engineering, Swain originally considered medical school while he was a student at Washington University in St. Louis. However, the year he took off of school to work as a full-time laboratory technician transformed his perspective on research. “It was definitely a tough decision because my path had been fairly linear up to that point … but so much personal and spiritual growth happened over that time,” he says.
Working in the lab, Swain, who is also a professional photographer, found himself compelled by the prospect of designing a physical tool to answer questions about invisible, microscopic phenomena — an interest that led him to MIT. Currently completing a laboratory rotation where he uses mathematical methods to reconstruct three-dimensional brain activity maps from light-field microscope images, Swain is drawn to visualization and the pursuit of a compelling image.
As he makes his way through his PhD program, Swain plans to continue to meld his technical and artistic interests, while exploring the potential for innovation that lies at the intersection of biology, engineering, and medicine.
With the help of an artificial sun lamp, Swain is adjusting to his first Boston winter. As a first year, he is still exploring the Cambridge area from his apartment near Central Square. He particularly enjoys the live jazz at Wally’s Café, just across the river in Boston. While he has “mixed feelings” regarding the sometimes-hipster character of Cambridge (he espouses skepticism for a wood-grained drip coffee maker he encountered in a local café), he’s found the city to be a compelling place to take photographs.
Swain’s interest in photography began in high school, when he took a black-and-white photography class. His interest piqued, he participated in yearbook design in high school, and then transitioned to professional photography in college, where he began to focus primarily on headshots. At first this was a pragmatic choice — headshots are commonly in demand for laboratory websites and LinkedIn profiles — but taking portraits became a creative exercise that suited his perfectionistic tendencies and his desire to “really get good at something.”
According to Swain, a great headshot relies on fine facial details and angles of light: “Fifty-plus percent is just forming a connection with the person … just to break the tension. [Then there are] angular things, where you put the light, the shoulders, a head tilt. You know when photographers do that? They’re actually doing stuff!” He laughs. “It’s little, subtle changes.”
Coming full circle, Swain is currently participating in a black-and-white photography course at MIT. Among the striking photos he is developing in black and white include a “Black Lives Matter” chalk drawing from a sidewalk near the Loop in St. Louis, and a portrait of a pair of sharply dressed young men at the 50th anniversary of the Selma bridge crossing, staring straight into the camera.
Swain readily admits to an obsession with aesthetic detail in all aspects of his work. His eye for simplicity allows him to distill information in plots and graphics, but he also laughs at the time he spends on line spacing on even the smallest assignment, and notes that he has to manage his perfectionism in order to meet the hard deadlines of his academic work. This sometimes presents a challenge for someone who takes the time to organize their photos individually by year, then season, then (numbered, dated) shoot, then (numbered, dated) photo.
Swain’s other artistic interest, slam poetry, allows him to express himself personally and politically through performance. As a student in St. Louis, he, with many others, used slam poetry as a medium for protest and catharsis during the Ferguson protests of Michael Brown’s murder. His emotional poem “The Silence of Michael Brown” was directly influenced by this challenging time.
A self-described introvert, Swain also feels able to explore his own thoughts on identity and race through performance. One poem, entitled “N*****,” was written in response to a prank on his college campus in which fraternity initiates used the n-word publicly, in a rap, in front of black students. Swain’s piece, a powerful salvo as well as a withering rebuke, describes the significance the word holds as both an inheritance of slavery and a weapon used against him.
Settling in at MIT
While Swain says he finally feels at home in his “nerdiness” at MIT, he occasionally misses the easy camaraderie of his black friends, whom he recently saw at their WashU reunion: “I had a big group of black friends. And there’s a certain dynamic there, of black culture. … I haven’t really found that space here, as of yet. And so that’s kind of tough.”
Swain is the only black student in his cohort in the biological engineering department, and while he is a member of a variety of groups for minority students — he is a Sloan-MIT University Center for Exemplary Mentoring (UCEM) Fellow, a member of Academy of Courageous Minority Engineers (ACME), and recently attended the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) — he still finds that the underrepresentation of black graduate students and faculty can inhibit him from feeling completely natural in his black identity at MIT.
Currently rotating among bioengineering labs, Swain will join a permanent lab next month. He’s shouldering a heavy course load, lightened by a hugely supportive department and a close relationship with his cohort. He buys a card for each of his classmates’ birthdays for everyone to sign.
For now, Swain says he would be happiest developing software and tools in a lab that would prepare him for a future professorship. Swain is more interested in the design and advancement of bioengineering technology broadly than in any one specific application thereof. This is a natural extension of a tendency to see connections rather than limitations; it is clear that Swain has come to MIT to create.