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Shelly Cao ’23

Majors: Art and Math
Hometown: Beijing, China
High school: Experimental High School Attached to Beijing Normal University

Oftentimes students feel as though there is a dichotomy between the sciences and the arts and that they must choose one or the other.
Enter Shelly Cao ’23, an art and mathematics double major pursuing a combination of both through architecture and showing the paths that emerge from pursuing interdisciplinary interests.

Explore Shelly’s Journey

First Year

  • Fall ’19

    Choosing a Major

    Cao intends to be a theatre major and math minor, but her classes change her trajectory. “I found my passion in design during the class Intro to Design taught by Professor Muirhead, who saw my potential and encouraged me to be an art major.”

Sophomore Year

  • Spring ’21

    Finding Her Place

    Cao takes Modern Architecture with Professor Ruth Lo. “I found this is an area that can combine my interest in space and design and a bit of math!”

  • Summer ’21

    Path to Harvard

    Cao asks Lo how she might further explore the architecture field. She leads Cao to the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Design Discovery Virtual program. "The online experience made it really different, because usually architecture has a studio culture. But since it was remote, they taught us a lot of Rhino and Adobe Suite programs like Photoshop and Illustrator. We did more reading and discussions. After that, I thought 'I like the design part, but I’m not sure about the seminar.' So, I still didn’t make up my mind about going into architecture, but at that point I had either architecture or math.”

Junior Year

  • Fall ’21

    Life as a Wellin Docent

    Cao is hired as a docent at the Wellin Museum of Art when the museum is hosting artist Sarah Oppenheimer’s exhibition, Sensitive Machines. “She dealt with the interaction between people and the space and between people and people, so that really influenced me as another way of thinking of space.”

“The program included not only architectural design, but also landscape architecture and urban design planning. We kind of got our hands on a bit of all of the areas.”

Shelly Cao ’23, on her experience with Harvard's Design Discovery Virtual program Shelly Cao ’23

Junior Year

  • Fall ’21

    Junior Seminar in Art

    Cao takes the Junior Seminar in Art. “I found I’m really interested in doing spatial and abstract projects. I focused myself in ... installation art where it’s not only a sculpture but also you can invite the audience to come interact with your piece in a way, or if you create a space, you can invite them in. I created an installation in KTSA using fishing lines because I was always thinking about how can I create a bigger thing without it costing so much, and also the fishing lines have this property of reflections, so it was really interesting to see how the space was deformed or being cut into smaller spaces. That was a crucial turning point for me in terms of my art career at Hamilton.”

  • Spring ’22

    Art & Math

    For a project in her Advanced Sculpture class, Cao collaborates with the Math Department to create a permanent installation in Christian-Johnson Building. “One of my math professors came to my junior seminar show and said I wish you could do one for our math building. I talked to a few other math professors, and they loved the idea, so I showed them my thinking and design and they gave me some feedback. I also reached out to Facilities Management to see if this was feasible, if I can actually drill holes in the ceiling and then hang stuff. Everyone was really supportive of the idea.”

  • Summer ’22

    Research at Georgia Tech

    To explore what pursuing pure math might look like, Cao participates in knot theory research at Georgia Tech. “I realized myself more of a spatial thinker and visual person. I think math is a field that is really narrow. Even mathematicians from different fields probably wouldn’t understand each other’s research topic. But in a design field, you have different tasks every day, you have a variety of content to work on and people to work with. And I think that’s what I wanted for my future career.”

Senior Year

  • Fall ’22

    Senior Thesis

    For her senior thesis in art, Cao creates pieces reminiscent of her previous installations but adapted to a museum format. “In the museum, we don’t have a limit for height. So, I was going for higher and thinking I can let people look up into my work to still give this spatial experience. I explored the relationship of movement in the installation with panels that move up vertically. Because this semester I’m also taking differential geometry, we talked about this notion called rigid or non-rigid motion, so I played with this idea in my senior work. My artwork is really inspired by math.”

  • Spring ’23

    Looking Ahead

    After graduation, Cao will attend Harvard Graduate School of Design for a Master of Architecture degree.

“I will continue to explore the intersection of math and art. I want to see what I can do with the skills I have and the thinking I have ... I can take it with me to go into any field in the future.”

Shelly Cao ’23, on her plans for the future Shelly Cao ’23

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