Frequent visitors to this blog will be aware of my recent pre-occupation with Scientific Images as Art competitions, increasingly being run by university departments and funding bodies. Over breakfast just over a week ago, my husband turned from his laptop and said, “The results of the 2012 Research as Art competition are on the Guardian website this morning.” Confused, I asked, “Which competition?”
It took us both a while to realise that the winners of the Swansea University ‘Research as Art’ competition had made their way to the website of a national newspaper. I was impressed, yet expected a technicolour selection of fluorescent images of biological cells. To my surprise, and since this was a competition open to staff and student researchers in all fields, only a single microscope image appeared among the winning entries, and it wasn’t even of a cell or of subcellular components. Instead, the image was of a salt grain in a jet engine turbine, called ‘Sal Cristallum’, taken by Hollie Rosier of the Department of Engineering. It is a very beautiful image and completely devoid of colour.
Is this art? Maybe. The distinction I’d make here is that we all have an idea of what a salt grain looks like. This image, with almost no associated text, then says, “Ah, but this is what a salt grain looks like under a [presumably electron] microscope.” The problem with showing biological images in this way is that the vast majority of people have no concept of what, for example, a G protein-coupled receptor is, let alone what it looks like or what its function is in mediating the actions of hormones in our bodies. This is how metaphor and conceptual art could aid in trying to explain life at the molecular level. Like the salt grain, using familiar objects or processes provides a starting point to enable the understanding of subcellular happenings.
Of all the competition winners, the image that really caught my eye was Josie Parker’s Knitted Protein Model (shown below). Although the competition title, ‘Research as Art’, implies that entries should be made during the course of one’s research practice, the blurb on the competition’s Flickr page states that the competition “attracted over 100 images and abstracts from across the University that are inspired by research or inspire research.”
I decided to get in touch with Josie directly, to clarify whether her research actually involves knitting proteins, or whether this was a piece inspired by her work. Similar to my own research, “the images [her] work generates are black and white gel photos or graphs”, which we agree are not visually appealing. Indeed, Knitted Protein Model was made as a Christmas present for a colleague, “a biochemist who has everything”. The model depicts their favourite enzyme, CYP51, which is the target for several antifungal compounds. Single mutations in the enzyme’s amino acid sequence can render the protein unable to bind particular compounds, conferring antifungal resistance since they cause significant changes in the protein’s three-dimensional structure. Josie’s research is focussed on studying how the affinity of antifungal compounds for CYP51 is changed by these mutations.
Although it is unlikely that Josie’s model alone can speak about CYP51 as a target of antifungal compounds, it does speak more widely of the intricacy and delicacy of protein structure itself. Instead of using a variegated wool, each colour has been chosen to depict a different part of the structure. We don’t know exactly what each means, but we know that the colours are important because they were chosen. Similarly, the (α-)helices (orange) and short straight sections of the protein (turquoise, β-sheet?) are not random but careful, directed and ordered.
Josie described what the experience of making the model gave to her:
In actually making the model I came to think a lot more about the protein. I’ve worked with members of the same family of proteins (CYPs) for several years and I’m used to thinking about how changes in the tertiary structure affect their interactions with substrates and inhibitors – it’s something that I visualise, but I usually only discuss in terms of affinity measurements, whether I can successfully over-express active, correctly folded, protein and ultimately how these changes affect resistance and activity in vivo. Folding the structure myself really made me appreciate how difficult it is to get correctly folded proteins outside of their native environment – as a result I felt less disappointed about my attempts at protein expression that have failed.
I think this is really important, and indeed the experience of making art is frequently more valuable than how it might be accepted by an audience. I have previously discussed this notion with respect to Elizabeth’s Price’s Turner Prize win – the need to be true to yourself and your own learning in the first instance. Could this raise an argument for ‘extra-curricular’ activities for scientists as a way to make them think differently about their scientific questions? Last Autumn I gave a talk about the use of drawing as a research tool at the Thinking Through Drawing symposium at Wimbledon College of Art, and it is conceivable that other artistic tools could be used in a similar way. It seems as though allowing molecular biologists an hour or two a week to attend a knitting class focussing on protein folding, for example, might actually benefit their scientific research. A multi-media sculpture class could be a lot of fun – imagine clay, metal wire, string, chicken wire, cardboard and a lot of mess. I’d be interested to know whether other scientists think that this (or other types of art classes) would be a worthwhile pursuit.