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When scientists become artists

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2009 - Spring


An ongoing exhibit of interesting scientific images raises the question of what constitutes art.

Outside a third-floor elevator at the Brady Memorial Laboratory, four unusual prints are displayed on the wall. Each is a square filled with a dense and intricate pattern that resembles television static; the prints are identical except for different bright hues. Their striking texture and colors invite a long examination. They would not look out of place in an art gallery.

Or would they? The patterns represent a DNA microarray, and they were created by scientists working with David F. Stern, Ph.D., professor of pathology, and by Terry Dagradi, a photographer and image specialist in information technology at the medical school who curated the display. The images are just a few of the many that Dagradi solicited from School of Medicine researchers as part of an ongoing project sponsored by the Office of Facilities Operations to display interesting scientific images in the corridors of the medical school. The Stern images are among the few that Dagradi altered (she added color), but in each case she played an artist’s role herself in choosing, framing and arranging the images. “There is a pattern and a rhythm” to these images, said Dagradi. “Somebody made a visual decision.”

Along with facilities manager Lorraine Roseman, Dagradi had already co-founded and curated ArtPlace, a project that since 2000 has shown the work of local artists, including many medical school faculty, on the walls of the Yale Physicians’ Building (YPB) on Howard Avenue. But unlike in the YPB galleries, which exhibit portraits, landscapes and abstracts in various media, the laboratory images were made in the course of scientific research—mostly with microscopes. For example, in the Bridge Gallery at The Anlyan Center (TAC), which runs along a second-floor walkway that connects the center with Brady Memorial Laboratory across the street, passersby are momentarily arrested by a fluorescent tick; by a protein rendered as writhing arrows, bulges and ribbons; by a 15-day-old mouse fetus, its snout and nail beds picked out in delicate blue, a portrait as tender as the sight of a sleeping child; by a set of neurons done in soft blues, pinks and greens that look like impressionist pastels, the cells seeming to strain upward like so many flowers in a Monet painting. Images like these straddle an uncertain boundary between scientific representation and the fine arts, and for some viewers they raise the question, what is art?

For as long as scientists have made observations, they have illustrated them. Andreas Vesalius, the 16th-century pioneer of the study of anatomy, took apart and reassembled the human body in allegorical poses; Robert Hooke, the English polymath and contemporary of Isaac Newton, drew a flea seen under a microscope; John James Audubon, the 19th-century American naturalist and ornithologist, painted birds at a Louisiana plantation. The stunning images that resulted might be called ancestors of the ones at the medical school.

“When I look at those 17th-century images, I don’t hesitate to think of them as artworks,” said Jonathan Gilmore, Ph.D., assistant professor of philosophy and a critic for publications including Art in America and Artforum. “[Hooke is] not just showing you these things as they looked under the microscope—he’s saying something about how marvelous or wondrous they are. … There’s no reason not to call that art.”

That quality of wondrousness is one reason why such images still seem so much at home in galleries; moreover, what Yale is doing isn’t new. Princeton University, for example, has become noted for its Art of Science competitions, in which organizers ask researchers to submit scientific images. More than a hundred Princetonians entered the first contest in 2005. The results, displayed in both a gallery and online, were so breathtaking that they caught the attention of Wired and Science and answered the contest’s challenge: “Science Is Boring, Art Is Stupid, Prove Us Wrong.”

“What’s interesting to us is that these marvelous images … come out of a process that is not really directed at making something beautiful,” said Gilmore.

The portrait of the fluorescing tick is the work of Ruth R. Montgomery, Ph.D., senior research scientist in medicine (rheumatology). She is also director of the confocal microscopy facility at the Department of Internal Medicine, where images are integral to her research. “As a person interested in how cells function, I’ve always taken pictures of them as part of displaying the research questions,” she said. “You learn as a skill of the trade how to get a good image that can be used in manuscripts and in slides to demonstrate your point.”

Montgomery studies what tick saliva does to human macrophage cells. “We were trying to trace a fluorescent marker through the tick to show which compartment of the tick it ended up in,” she said, describing an image that graced not medical school hallways, but the cover of the Journal of Experimental Medicine in June 2006. “We never did find the actual molecule we were looking for, so we didn’t really prove the point that we wanted to, but we got this cool picture. … I figure [the display in TAC is] my one and only art opening for my lifetime.”

Vali Gazula, Ph.D., an associate research scientist in pharmacology, made several images of a mouse cerebellum. Because they were not intended for scientific publication, he manipulated their colors to make them more striking. “Since this is for art,” he said, “I can put some dye more, some dye less, make [them] visually appealing.” Gazula said he sometimes uses leftover reagents to create images in addition to the ones he needs for his research. “When Terry asked me for these pictures, I already had a lot of pictures, because I wanted to put them on my computer as screen savers.”

Yet the native of Hyderabad, India, does not think of himself as an artist. He thinks of art in a more traditional sense and dislikes abstract art. His favorite artist is a 19th-century Indian painter, Raja Ravi Varma, who painted episodes from the Indian literary epics in an academic European style.

One reason why the question “Is this art?” is so important, said Gilmore, is that the answer has some bearing on how we respond to the images. “If the scientists making them thought of themselves as creating works of art, that says that we should interpret them, perhaps look for meaning in them.” Such works also get a pass on manipulation and enhancement—in art, anything goes. But the same is not true of images intended to demonstrate a scientific point; and indeed, other scientists whose works are on display deny having manipulated their images.

“Was it modified? No, not at all,” said Marc Pelletier, Ph.D., a former postdoctoral fellow who now runs a biotech company in Cleveland, of his transmission electron microscope image. It depicts a molecule of apolipoprotein A-1, part of the high-density lipoprotein type of cholesterol. As the image caption points out, the micrograph is reminiscent of the work of the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, a pioneering abstract artist of the early 20th century. “I framed it in the scope to have the look of the Kandinsky,” he explained.

Though Pelletier didn’t alter or shape his image as an artist probably would, that nod to Kandinsky was an act of craftsmanship. In general, however, if a scientist never intended an image as art, it may not be. “Whether something is a work of art or not—that question has to be sensitive to the context in which it was created,” said Gilmore. “That doesn’t mean that these can’t be works of art made by, say, the person who collated them and put them together and used them.” In some cases—and in a long tradition of “found” art—Dagradi herself may be the artist. She chose images that were intended only to demonstrate a scientific point and, by making a visual decision of her own, elevated them to the status of art by displaying or altering them.

“I think that one should be at least careful about identifying the scientists—those who just happened to have these images around [and] made them for research purposes—as artists, because the concept of art didn’t enter into the process by which they made these things,” said Gilmore. We sometimes honor people who create visually interesting objects, he explained, by calling them artists. “Are those people artists in the sense in which Rembrandt was an artist? Probably not. I think that would be a mistake.”

Of all the scientists represented in Yale Med’s galleries, Cécile Chalouni, Ph.D., a former associate research scientist in the Department of Cell Biology who now works at Genentech in San Francisco, may be the most at home in the art world. Trained as an immunologist, she chose her field in part for the opportunities for imaging it affords; she was already an experienced aesthetic photographer when she began her doctoral studies. One of her microscopic images won a contest in Nature Cell Biology and three others appeared in the 40th edition of Gray’s Anatomy, while her fine-art photography has been displayed in exhibitions in the United States and France.

Both science and art, said Chalouni, feature connections between very different things. What shows up in a frog’s immune system is often seen in a human’s as well, while an artist may create a visual image based on a piece of music. “This is something for me that is totally amazing—that you translate and make bridges between senses.”

Asked if the images she chooses for display were originally done for the sake of beauty or for science, she said they were done for both. Like Gazula, Chalouni occasionally makes and saves extra images in the course of her work. “The images I kept have the scientific information I’m looking for, and possibly aesthetic elements. What is important to remember is that a less beautiful image can be scientifically more interesting than a very beautiful image.” That is, dendritic cells like the one on TAC’s wall—a blue many-armed star—may be visually appealing, but a micrograph of simple round lymphocytes may be more striking to a scientist if it illustrates an important discovery. To a scientist, the beauty of an image may be more than visual. Yet, as artists have always known, the visual element makes for powerful demonstrations and may be the most effective mode of scientific communication.

“A fundamental driving force in science is to look for the beauty in nature,” said Pelletier. “So scientists … should have an eye to explore that nature.” If the images in Brady and TAC are any indication, Yale scientists’ eyes are wide open.

Pioneering scientific image-makers like Hooke who looked through their microscopes were filled with wonder at what they saw, and their modern-day counterparts—as well as many nonscientists—continue to gaze upon the natural world with awe and appreciation. “Sometimes there’s no urgency in deciding whether or not these are works of art,” said Gilmore, “because these things are just incredibly marvelous to look at in their own right.” YM

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