Seeing the Art in Science
• Carl Zeiss Microscopy
• German Center for Research and Innovation (GCRI)
“Art is born of the observation and investigation of nature.” These words by Roman philosopher Cicero still hold true today. The relationship between art and science has a long history and has been expressed in a variety of ways. One of the most famous examples of this connection is Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing ‘Vitruvian Man,’ which is both a work of art and a scientific observation. Today, modern technologies make it possible to depict even the smallest parts of the natural world. The images that can come out of these new technologies allow us to see ourselves and the world around us in a new light. They also offer an interesting perspective on the daily work of scientists. Science art is becoming increasingly popular as it opens up new possibilities for both scientists to communicate their findings and for the public to engage with them.
On June 16, 2015, researchers and the senior designer from the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois presented their institute’s artistic scientific images at the German Center for Research and Innovation (GCRI) in New York. They spoke about genomic research and the relationship between art and science. CWI is one of the world’s leading institutions dedicated to the development and application of genomic science. Genomics, the study of an organism’s complete set of DNA, has been one of the most significant developments in science over the past 25 years. It provides indispensable technologies and concepts to help solve a myriad of scientific challenges, a common language that facilitates connections between researchers with diverse academic backgrounds, and an unprecedented opportunity to engage with, and improve, the well-being of our society. The discussion was moderated by Dr. Kirk Czymmek, Director of Carl Zeiss Microscopy North American Applications and Labs. Dr. Joann Halpern, Director of the German Center for Research and Innovation, briefly introduced the work of her organization before handing over the floor to Dr. Czymmek.
Dr. Czymmek kicked off the discussion by para quoting Jeff Lichtman, Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard University: “Basically modern microscopy has achieved [a level of] sophistication and complexity, but the knowledge of the users is often a limiting factor to achieve the best results. We can make these wonderful tools, but they are only as good as the driver.” With this in mind, Dr. Czymmek raised the question of what challenges need to be faced when people who may never have seen a microscope before come into the lab to work on a project.
Dr. Glenn Fried, Director of Core Facilities at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, illustrated the practice of introducing new users to the lab’s microscopy equipment. First, after users learn some background knowledge about physics, they get to know how to use the instruments, and along the way, find the optimal settings for their projects and receive the assistance they need to eventually work independently. Dr. Fried further discussed outreach efforts by his institute, citing a special week-long program they organize for middle school girls. The ‘Pollen Power Camp’ provides these girls the opportunity to partake in scientific projects with the help of a female graduate student or postdoc research mentor to learn more about biology and physics. One of the works featured in the Institute’s current exhibition shows the inside of a corncob and was made from an image taken by a group of girls that participated in this program.
Dr. Lisa Stubbs, Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology at the University of Illinois, also spoke on the panel, elaborating on how microscopy imaging can be used by geneticists to understand issues in biology. Specializing in mouse genetics and comparative genomics, Dr. Stubbs has always been interested in putting the sequencing of genes into function. Geneticists come up with numerous models for the sequences at which they are looking. Microscopy imaging helps to reveal where specific genes within genetic networks are expressed. Dr. Stubbs showed an example of replacing a protein gene with a green florescent protein that lights up in a 3-D image. Looking at this type of image can help researchers see where the specific gene is expressed and how it changes the way cells develop.
Kathryn Coulter, Senior Multimedia Designer at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, provided insight into the process of creating the final artistic rendering of a microscopic image. After observing an image, she comes up with an association in her mind that eventually leads her to specific imagery or colors that she would like to apply. Ms. Coulter said that she enjoyed getting feedback on her work and while she may experience some initial pushback from the researchers who captured the original, untouched images, they ultimately embrace the final enhanced images. The art science project began by featuring an ‘Image of the Month’ taken by core facility users at the Carl R. Woese Institute. After some time, the staff decided to hang these images up on the institute’s walls, and the exhibition grew from there, developing into the idea to show the images to people who aren’t researchers so that they too could learn something about the science behind them.
After the panel discussion, the speakers fielded questions from the audience that revolved around potential reasons for the increasing popularity of science art, the process of capturing and enhancing such images, and current developments in cancer research. The opening of the exhibition “Seeing the Art in Science” then followed with a reception in the lobby of the German House.