“Meet the BioArtists” recap


Art and science are intimately intertwined. A great example of the intersection of these two topics is the BioArt contest run by our colleagues at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology [FASEB]. Since 2012, FASEB has handed out awards to the most inspiring, creative artistic images of scientific phenomena, ranging from fungal infections to nutrient uptake by plants to neuronal cell signaling.


BioArt images were displayed on the walls of the Karl Strauss Brewery in downtown San Diego

Though scientists may be accustomed to such stunning images (and videos), the public at-large has traditionally not experienced the same level of exposure.To bring BioArt to the masses in a truly public venue, the ASBMB recently sponsored “Meet the BioArtists ” at the Karl Strauss Brewery in downtown San Diego. Images submitted by previous BioArt contest winners were printed and hung on display in the brewery for several weeks in April, enveloping patrons with plant stem cells, nerve fibers and even the Ebola virus.

While the brewery staff made a valiant effort to point out the science-themed art, it was difficult (if not impossible) for any of the viewers to make the connection between the image hanging on the wall in front of them and the science that it was inspired by. This passivity is one of the problems with art. Engagement happens only at the discretion of the audience, removing the face-to-face interactions that lead to deeper understanding: you don’t get to ask Picasso how he painted that picture, or Mozart why he wrote that musical piece. Given the overarching goal of science outreach to connect scientists and non-scientists, it is important for such events to take place in situations that allow for direct interactions between the two groups.

Nat Prunet describes his winning BioArt image for attendees

So to add that extra touch of engagement, on the evening of April 5 BioArtist winners Bryan Jones, Nat Prunet and Clarence Wigfall came to the brewery to present their science-themed works of art for the local San Diego community, as well as attendees of the EB conference. Donning white lab coats, the BioArtists mingled with customers, talked about their motivations and artistic inspirations, and described the science behind their images for nearly four hours. The constant flow of engaged visitors coming to talk science on a Tuesday night was impressive, especially considering that a Padres baseball game was taking place a few blocks away. Outreach and engagement, all at once.

After the success of the “Meet the BioArtists” event, the ASBMB is contemplating how to continue bringing science art to the public by potentially developing a BioArtists road show that can visit cities across the country. After all, these days everyone deserves to get a chance to interact with art (and science).

Pictures from the event can be found here.

Meet the BioArtists


The Experimental Biology (EB) meeting has been a frequent visitor to San Diego. And every time we come to town, the ASBMB Public Outreach Committee puts on a unique outreach event that brings science to the local community. At EB2012 in San Diego, we organized (in conjunction with the San Diego Biotechnology Network) a science-themed tweet-up at the Mission Brewery. Two years later, we worked with the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center to put on an interactive science café at Southpaw Social Club that gave attendees a hands-on look at FoldIt, the protein folding video game.

So how do we top ourselves in 2016? This time around, we’ll be focusing on art. Anyone who has worked in a lab will immediately appreciate the beauty of the natural world and the creative, artistic ways that researchers showcase the wonders of science. To highlight these efforts, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) has, since 2012, sponsored the BioArt competition, which invites scientists to share “captivating, high-resolution images and videos representing cutting edge, 21st century biomedical and life science research.”

Ou 2015

One of the winning images from the 2015 FASEB BioArt contest, by Xiawei Ou, Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center, Arkansas Children’s Hospital (ACH) and ACH Research Institute, and University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Little Rock, AR

Now for the first time, we are bringing BioArt to EB. Winning images from the past several years will be displayed on the walls of the Karl Strauss Brewery, one of downtown San Diego’s hottest brew pubs. Even cooler, on the night of April 5, we will have several of the actual BioArt winners there in-person to talk about their entries and how they were motivated to translate their research into art. This will be a great chance to see for yourself the intersection of art and STEM (commonly referred to by the acronym “STEAM”).

So if you’re in San Diego looking for something to do on a Tuesday night and want to see what science has to offer, come on down and join us! As anyone who has come to one of our outreach events before can attest, you are guaranteed to have a fun time.


Biophilia: A Science Love Song


Ask someone to pick a song that has to do with science, and they will almost invariably point to the 1982 song “She Blinded Me With Science” by Thomas Dolby. Ask them to pick another, and they will likely be stumped.

It’s fair to say that science has not proved as popular a subject in music as love or drugs or politics. Yet artists are beginning to use the creative canvas that science provides as a source of musical inspiration. Taking this idea to the extreme is the Icelandic singer Björk, whose stunning new concert film, Biophilia Live, presents a live, multimedia display of science-themed music in one of the more unique examples of science outreach that has been undertaken.Biophilia Live Poster

In 2011, Björk released Biophilia, a concept album that attempts to unite music, nature and technology into a single experience. With song titles like “Virus” and “Crystalline,” the album sees Björk using science to express a range of emotions, from helplessness (“as fast as your fingernail grows the Atlantic ridge drifts”) to attraction (“my romantic gene is dominant”). Musically, the album relies on a number of unique instruments and musical arrangements that help synthesize Björk’s vision into an unsettling sonic outburst. In a podcast, she describes the project as “both zooming out like the planets but also zooming into the atoms, and in that way aesthetically sympathising with sound.”

A show from the ensuring promotional concert tour was filmed and released as Biophilia Live, which premiered at the TriBeCa Film Festival in April 2014. Perhaps the first concert film to feature a chromosome smear in its opening sequence, Biophilia Live begins with a spoken introduction from naturalist David Attenborough set against a backdrop of images and video clips that could easily have come from a National Geographic nature film. Viewers are then transported to the Alexandra Palace in London, where Björk and her band run through the album in its entirety (along with several other songs).

To help support and amplify the science-themed music, the 360o stage setup features technical and sonic wizardry in the form of Tesla coils and pendulum harps. Cameras are set up around the entire arena, providing shots from a wide variety of angles and depths that cut from darkly-lit audience shots to disorienting close-ups. Video screens above the stage project a menagerie of scientific images, including dividing cells, plate tectonics and colorful crystalline rock formations, which occasionally morph to fill up the entire movie screen, before giving way to shots of the performers. All of this takes place as Björk cavorts around the stage, sporting an enormous, multi-colored afro wig, wearing a lacquered bubble dress and exercising her stellar vocal chords (backed by a 24-person Icelandic choir), all in the name of science.

Though the immersive experience offered concert attendees was undoubtedly amazing, the concert seems somehow better fitted for the cinema. Given that the entire Biophilia project originally began as a 3D film, it is no surprise that Biophilia Live comes off as an IMAX film set to music. Between the audio and visual production, it is impossible to sit through the movie and not feel completely immersed in science: the only thing missing are 3D glasses.

So go check out Biophilia Live if you want to be a part of Björk’s unorthodox approach to musical expression. Or if you want to see how the artistic components of the natural world can be used to expand the universal creative repertoire. Or if you just want to be able to name another science-themed song.

Check out where you can watch Biophilia in your hometown: http://www.biophiliathefilm.com/

Worth A Thousand Words


Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Unfortunately, the beauty of science is often confined to the eyes of those who do it, hidden behind mounds of technical data and impermeable prose. Yet visual scientific imagery represents the most direct form of science communication, one that can have a powerful impact on both scientists and non-scientists: consider the famous picture of Earth taken from the surface of the moon, or the intricate complexity of the DNA double helix.

The BioArt competition, launched by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) in conjunction with their centennial in 2012, aims to bring the artistic side of science out into the open. Scientists submit images or videos generated in the laboratory that are both visually magnificent and scientifically significant. To emphasize the theme of science communication, each entry must include a caption that describes the image or video in language relatable to a general audience. An important caveat is that each entry demonstrates research supported by federal funding.

The 2013 winners consisted of ten images and two videos, developed using both classical and state-of-the-art imaging technologies. Included are two entries from ASBMB members.

William Lewis from Emory University School of Medicine won for his image of an amyloid plaque viewed via polarized spectroscopy.

FASEB BioArt Entry From William Lewis, Emory University School of Medicine

Image courtesy of FASEB

Meanwhile, Douglas Cowan and James McCully from Harvard Medical School, were recognized for their fluorescence image depicting the cellular architecture of rat cardiomyocyte cells.

FASEB BioArt Entry from Douglas Cowan and James McCully, Harvard Medical School

Image courtesy of FASEB

The winning works of art have been displayed at several public locations, including the Visitor Center on the National Institutes of Health campus.

NMHM Science cafe poster

They were also highlighted during the Medical Museum Science Café this week in Silver Spring, Maryland, an event sponsored by the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Other opportunities for public display are currently being developed.

So are these images beautiful? See them with your own eyes.

For a full list of winning entries, please visit: http://www.faseb.org/About-FASEB/Scientific-Contests/BioArt/Winners.aspx

Thanks to Shaila Kotadia (@shpostrapheaila) for help writing this post!

Science + Dance = Educational Art

Today we have a guest post from ASBMB Science Policy Fellow Shaila Kotadia, who writes about her experience combining science and dance.
Mitosis dance

Throughout history, science has influenced the arts. In fact, many famous artists were also famous scientists. For example, Leonardo Da Vinci is known for the Mona Lisa and The Vitruvian Man. In this vein, science and dance are a seamless collaboration. One of the most famous early examples is a dance from 1971 that depicts protein synthesis. After a lull for a few decades, there has been a recent strong resurgence of using science as inspiration for dance.

Science and dance have resulted in many creative ventures. My first introduction to the field was the collaboration between David Odde and Carl Flink, both at the University of Minnesota, to model molecular movements. David Odde’s work captured my interest for two reasons: 1) one of his lab’s concentrations was on microtubule dynamics during mitosis, or cell division, which overlapped with my scientific interests and 2) his use of dancers to model microtubule assembly and disassembly in the cell, which overlapped with my hobby of dancing. The idea of combining the two seemed so clever, and it was fascinating how accurate it could be for predicting actual cellular processes. Thus, this was a great source of inspiration for me to initiate my own science and dance mission.

I wondered how dancers would solve the biological problem I was studying. My work involved extremely long, stretched chromosomes and how the cell had to adapt to this abnormal phenomena in order to preserve the integrity of the genomic information. In other words, how did the cell coordinate division with chromosome segregation? I wanted to see how the dancers would have solved this problem as compared to the biological solutions that had been discovered. For example, in the Sullivan lab at UC Santa Cruz where I held a postdoctoral fellowship, it was discovered that Drosophila, or the fruit fly, neural stem cells change their shape and elongate to accommodate the long chromosome that lags at the division plane. Perhaps the dancers would have solved this phenomenon in a different way and thereby, open my eyes to a new discovery.

To my advantage, I was taking ballet classes at a studio with junior high and high school students and my ballet teacher approached me about choreographing a piece. As I began preparing to work with the young dancers, I realized I first had to teach (or at least refresh their memory) about mitosis. This led me to wonder how creating a dance based on a scientific concept could be used as an effective teaching tool for students. I wanted to involve the dancers in generating the choreography, so I decided that an iterative process would work best. During our first session, I explained mitosis and how I captured cells dividing live in my own work in the lab. I broke the girls up into three groups, representing the three cellular structures important in mitosis, the chromosomes, the microtubules, and the cell membrane. From there, we worked together on each mitotic stage. I would give some details about the science and my ballet teacher and I would suggest some dance moves that might capture the movement while maintaining the art of dance. Once the dancers had completed the stage by working together in their groups, they would perform the part for me and I would pare it down or give comments. Quite quickly, we had a completed dance that allowed the girls to better understand the nuances between the mitotic stages and have fun dancing and choreographing.

The most amazing part of the back-and-forth method was watching the students understand the scientific concepts, help each other, and then translate the science into dance moves. This even led to them asking more in-depth questions beyond the basics of mitosis. Perhaps my favorite quote was from Ashlyn Fletcher who said, “I wish I had paid more attention in class!” All the while, I decided to (amateurishly) video the whole process to give other scientists an idea of how the method worked and to showcase the final product for anyone who could use it as an aid to better understand mitosis. An added bonus is that it turned out to be a visually appealing dance!

As the arts are becoming more and more integrated into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education and the combination of science and dance are becoming more well-renowned and popular, I plan to continue on this great avenue with local choreographers to inspire young students to love science while creating beautiful dance. My positive experience teaching simple yet sophisticated scientific concepts has also encouraged me to revisit my original intention of using dancers to predict outcomes of biological problems. I also discovered that these projects make wonderful gifts, as evidenced by my goodbye dance to my postdoctoral adviser based on his postdoctoral work. Motivated by his reaction to include the video in his scientific presentations to explain his studies, I would love to consult with scientists to help them choreograph a dance based on their individual projects. Feel free to reach out and we can pursue any one of these avenues or pave an unexplored path in science and dance!

I would like to acknowledge Dancenter owner Ruth Fisher for allowing me to pursue this project in her studio. In addition, I want to thank Christina Martin, the faculty member at Dancenter (and a wonderful ballet teacher!) who gave me the opportunity to choreograph and for assisting me with the dancers. Of course, the dancers were the most integral part of the process and they were an amazing group of girls to teach and dance with: Maria Abrego, Kari Adams, Samantha Brocamontes, Ashlyn Fletcher, Arden Gautieri, Taylor Gautieri, Fiona Grishaw-Jones, Olivia Locatelli, Nicole Martinez, and Kira Mathiessen.

Follow Shaila on Twitter: @shpostrapheaila