The following post was recently published as a Guest Post on the ‘Broaden Your Impact’ blog. The post was entitled ‘Visual Communication of Thoughts About Our Molecular Worlds: a Matter of Scale and Metaphor’ and can be found here.
My unusual introduction to cell biology came whilst browsing large medical texts, including ‘Gray’s Anatomy’, in the library whilst at art school. The bright, colourful and complex microscopy images intrigued me and became the focus of my paintings for the next couple of years. However, as time went on it increasingly bothered me that I could neither understand the structures I was looking at, nor interpret the detailed figure legends alongside.
One of the first problems that presents itself when trying to understand how processes in our bodies work at the molecular level is associated with the concept of scale. Frustrated that I had to rely on someone else’s images of cells rather than able to look first-hand and create my own, I began working on close-up paintings of human skin and hair. It was through these paintings that I explored the line between figuration and abstraction, examining how closely the human body can be magnified before losing context and familiarity, pushing towards abstraction. ‘Ear’, in particular, occupied the boundary, with some people immediately seeing it for what it is (without being told the title), whilst others saw it as abstraction. Abstract paintings are much more easily dismissed because viewers often assume that they don’t understand them, or are often not willing to try to engage with them – perhaps the iconography, or indeed lack of, seems unfamiliar. In my experience, this reaction is comparable to the general public’s relationship with interpretations of the subcellular world. In terms of scale, this internal world is so far removed from the perceptual interactions that we experience in our daily lives that there are no bridging features between the two: one does not easily, visually, lead on to the other.
An enduring desire to understand more about the Cell Paintings I had made led me to study biology further at undergraduate and graduate level. At University College London I took courses in molecular and cellular biology, in immunology, microbiology, and cancer biology. I gained a particular fascination for intracellular signalling pathways: how cells communicate with one another through the use of small molecules (hormones, such as insulin, cortisol and epinephrine), and how this signal is transmitted to the inside of a cell to effect a response. My Ph.D studies focussed on a small family of intracellular lipid transfer proteins called phosphatidylinositol transfer proteins (PITPs), in particular a novel member known as RdgBβ. Biological cells have internal membranes that delineate compartments (organelles), each of which has a particular function. The membranes of each organelle are ‘marked’ by the (phospho-)lipids they contain and by the particular complement of proteins associated with the membranes. PITPs transfer particular species of phospholipid (phosphatidylinositol, PI, and phosphatidylcholine, PC) between these internal membranes, so regulating their distribution. During my research, I discovered an interaction between RdgBβ and ATRAP, the Angiotensin II receptor-associated protein (Garner et al., 2011). ATRAP is an integral membrane protein involved in the regulation of water and salt balance by the kidneys through its modulation of the activity of the Angiotensin II type 1 receptor, and therefore could be involved in determining which internal membranes RdgBβ visits.
Towards the end of my Ph.D, I published a paper in the Journal of Biological Chemistry reporting that RdgBβ differed from the other members of the PITP family in that rather than binding PI or PC, it preferred PI or phosphatidic acid (PA) (Garner et al., 2012). For the lipid biology community, this finding is ground-breaking as this was the first report of a protein able to specifically bind PA. For many years there has existed controversy as to how this lipid is transported between membrane compartments. As part of the process of publishing in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, contributors are invited to submit images for the journal cover. The illustration below describes the interaction of RdgBβ (centre, purple molecule) with the membrane (brown structure at the bottom of the image), ATRAP (dark grey structure shown in line form only on the right, seen to cross the membrane three times) and another interacting partner of RdgBβ, 14-3-3 (black ‘m’-shaped molecule, left).
My Ph.D research was sponsored by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) in the UK, who understandably show a keen interest whenever research funded by them is published. We naturally sent them details of the paper, and on the basis of the quality of my illustration, they decided to write an article about my research on their website. By this point I had spent several years trying to explain to family and friends exactly what I was studying, and my extensive explanations and accompanying drawings were largely met by blank faces. I therefore began the interview with the BHF Press Officer aware of which buzzwords might best keep his attention. If I could have told him that RdgBβ protects the human heart from disease, I might have been onto something. However, during the conversation it became increasingly clear that firstly the concept of lipid transfer protein regulation was difficult to grasp without a background in biology, and secondly that it was next-to impossible to make it sound interesting or relevant to his audience. The website feature was later dropped in favour of a personal piece about my journey from art to a career in cardiovascular research in their patient magazine, ‘Heart Matters’ (‘A fresh perspective on research’, Sarah Kidner, Heart Matters, May-Jun 2013.
The visual and written communications of science are mutually beneficial to one another: if a concept is frequently discussed in writing, it becomes easier to tackle through the use of visual images. Furthermore, both types of creative work can use the same tools in their discussions. In science writing, metaphors are commonly used to convey to an audience just how big, red or dangerous, etc., something is – they provide a point of reference from which to form an understanding. Similarly, visual metaphors can be employed in art to give the audience a starting point on which to hang their understanding.
Each cell in the human body contains trillions of tiny protein machines, each with a specific function and job to carry out. This may be bringing together a host of other proteins, such as a scaffolding protein to ensure that they are doing their job in the correct place, or it may be the modification of key substrates as is the case for enzymes. If any one of these proteins is absent, lazy or decides to do something else, serious consequences can ensue, including the manifestation of infection or the development of disease. An example of how this concept might be evoked is through visual work about transport networks, large financial organisations, or a city itself. Some of my work has looked at circuit boards: like cells, they form part of a larger system, such as a computer, and within them contain many essential components that form a network of functions.
Biological cells are also composed of a series of compartments, and the correct assignment of particular proteins to each of these compartments ensures that they carry out their roles effectively. This might be likened to the assignment of particular activities within a home: the preparation of food in a kitchen, washing in the bathroom, sleeping in a bedroom.
Through my experiences in trying to communicate my interest in molecular biology to my friends, family, and the wider public, as well as other scientists, it is becoming clear to me that not all scientific research can be subjected to the same approach in its communication. In my artwork, I now choose to address broad concepts that I find fascinating rather than the detail of which protein does what to whom. One of the key questions I’ve learnt to ask in my work as a scientist is, “Why?” Why does a particular protein appear to act the way it does, and in writing grant applications, why is your research question in particular worth pursuing? Furthermore, in trying to communicate abstract processes that occur within our body cells, why should the public be interested? Some topics do concern the wider public (for example why drugs prescribed by a medical practitioner should be valued over homeopathic or alternative medicines, why these might have side effects and why more research is required to develop highly specific drugs with less side effects), but there has to be a limit to the amount of detail that needs to be communicated. Art concerning more general concepts, in comparison, has a role in improving the public’s familiarity with molecular biology, supporting the more detailed messages. Science communication of any sort functions to encourage more people to ask questions about science, building a valuable bridge between our daily reality and the world hidden from our perception.