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Discovering the beauty of living cells: Science meets coffee shop art

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17 January 2019
A recent art exhibition in downtown State College featured 18 works by Penn State scientists.
A recent art exhibition in downtown State College featured 18 works by Penn State scientists.

Stopping by for their morning coffee in December, patrons of Webster’s Bookstore Cafe in downtown State College were treated to an unusual installment in the David R. Neumann Art Gallery—works featuring the beauty of living cells. The exhibition for the month, entitled “The Art of Cell Biology,” featured 18 pieces of science-based artwork, including vividly colored microscopic images of breast cancer cells, tendrils of parasitic fungus in an ant, expanding bacterial colonies, and the surface of a DNA molecule. All of the artwork was produced by Penn State researchers, including 11 from the Eberly College of Science.

“Many images produced during the scientific process are quite beautiful, and the scientific community is starting to share these images with the general public to spark their interest in science,” said Claire Thomas, associate professor of biology and of biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State and curator of the exhibit. “Scientists are very concerned about a lack of public understanding of science, so an effort is being made to make science more relatable. Using art is one way to do so.”

Artwork by Emily Bell, assistant research professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and organizer of the conference that originally generated this collection, titled “Constellations of Cancer Cells.” In this false color fluorescent light micrograph, nuclei of cells containing DNA (blue) in a human breast cancer tumor have been stained in three colors (green, red, cyan) to reveal variation in factors that can influence cell behavior.
Artwork by Emily Bell, assistant research professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and organizer of the conference that originally generated this collection, titled “Constellations of Cancer Cells.” In this false color fluorescent light micrograph, nuclei of cells containing DNA (blue) in a human breast cancer tumor have been stained in three colors (green, red, cyan) to reveal variation in factors that can influence cell behavior.

The works on display at Webster’s were originally solicited from researchers across the university who were attending a conference on presenting data—from traditional techniques to interpreting data with sound and dance—sponsored by the Center for Cellular Dynamics within the Penn State Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. Thomas collected the images and had them printed and displayed during the conference.

“There was a very positive reaction to the collection at the conference,” said Thomas, “and we thought that it might produce a similar reaction among members of the State College community. Webster’s provided a wonderful venue because so many different people stop in for coffee or events. It has been really interesting to see what appeals to community members as opposed to what appeals to scientists. Like all art, it’s an individual reaction.”

All of the artwork in the exhibition was produced using a microscope of some kind. Some researchers used traditional light microscopes like those you would find in a high school classroom. Others made use of electron microscopy and one even used atomic force microscopy, which provides a visualization of an object essentially by “feeling” it as the microscope drags an ultrafine needle back and forth across the object’s surface. But what makes a scientific image art?

Derek Nye, graduate student in the Molecular, Cellular, and Integrative Biosciences (MCIBS) program at Penn State, stands next to his work, that features nerves in a fruit fly larva, at “The Art of Cell Biology” exhibition at Webster’s Bookstore Café in downtown State College in December.
Derek Nye, graduate student in the Molecular, Cellular, and Integrative Biosciences (MCIBS) program at Penn State, stands next to his work, that features nerves in a fruit fly larva, at “The Art of Cell Biology” exhibition at Webster’s Bookstore Café in downtown State College in December.

“For all of the works in the exhibition, a researcher had to make important choices about composition, and in many cases about coloration,” said Thomas. “For some of the works, researchers digitally painted colors onto a black and white image in order to direct the viewer to key features, making aesthetic choices in the process. Many of the others required some kind of stain in order to detect and highlight specific structures within a sample. Although there are scientific standards and rules for this process, the scientist also makes artistic judgements to help convey their data.”

The most common stain uses antibodies to target and carry a fluorescent dye to individual proteins in a cell. The scientist separately images each protein under fluorescent light, collecting an initial image in black and white, and then assigns each protein a color as they merge the images. The scientist chooses colors to help the viewer see the relative positions of up to four different types of proteins. These colors are often not the actual color of the dye, giving these types of images the name “false color images.”

A few of the researchers manipulated some of the images purely for visual appeal. William Chase, a research technologist in biology, overlaid a rainbow pride flag on an image of a layer of onion cells. Thomas duplicated an image of a salivary gland from a fruit fly nine times, arranging them in a circle.

“Scientists are very concerned with the details of their work, but conveying those details may not be the best way to garner interest in science,” said Thomas. “For this exhibition, we chose to remove some details from the descriptions of our artwork that would normally accompany these images, like the level of magnification and the names of proteins. We hoped to provide just enough information to get people interested in the visuals and hopefully the science as well.”

Artwork by Claire Thomas, associate professor of biology and of biochemistry and molecular biology and curator of the exhibit, titled “Egg Chamber Figurine.” In this false color fluorescent light micrograph, patches of fruit fly follicle cells, which create egg chambers where strings of eggs grow, are seen in three successively larger chambers surrounding three growing eggs. The eggs and other follicle cells are invisible because they were not stained.
Artwork by Claire Thomas, associate professor of biology and of biochemistry and molecular biology and curator of the exhibit, titled “Egg Chamber Figurine.” In this false color fluorescent light micrograph, patches of fruit fly follicle cells, which create egg chambers where strings of eggs grow, are seen in three successively larger chambers surrounding three growing eggs. The eggs and other follicle cells are invisible because they were not stained.

The exhibition reflects the growing interest of the scientific community for scientific art, or ‘SciArt,’ be it raw or modified images produced for science or artwork inspired by science. Multiple organizations dedicated to SciArt have popped up over the last decade, and the #SciArt hashtag is growing on social media. Some universities, scientific organizations, and art museums have also produced special exhibitions on the topic, such as the regular science-based exhibitions at Princeton and Brown Universities. At Penn State, the Arts and Design Research Incubator (ADRI) explores interdisciplinary questions that combine research and teaching with technology, art, and engagement, and offers regular lectures and workshops at the intersection of art and science.

Although the exhibition at Webster’s ended with the new year, Thomas hopes to find new and compelling opportunities to convey her research to the public, including through art, and hopes her colleagues that contributed to the exhibition will do so as well.

“I really enjoyed organizing and participating in this unique outreach experience” said Thomas. “I hope that the community also enjoyed this glimpse into the beautiful world of cell biology.”

[ Gail McCormick ]

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