Finding Beauty Through a Microscope

Art fairs can make artists out of scientists — bringing science out of the lab and into the public eye and bridging the gap between the research community and laypeople.

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Author | Kara Gavin


An outdoor art fair may seem like an unlikely place to find stem cells.

Or mouse kidneys.

Or brain tumor cells.

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Or a chance to talk with a scientist — especially one who can explain what those scientific specimens can teach us about ourselves and the diseases we dread.

But for a growing number of researchers, art fairs and galleries have become a way to reach the public. They're taking the images they make in their labs and presenting — or even selling — them as art.

One of the longest-running examples of this trend is the BioArtography initiative at the University of Michigan.

Based at the Medical School's Center for Organogenesis, it's in its 12th year of running an annual competition to choose the best images from laboratories at the Medical School and other life sciences areas of the university. Some of those images will be available for sale this week at the Ann Arbor Art Fairs.

Cell biologist Deborah Gumucio, Ph.D., has co-led the program since its beginning.

"Each picture we sell comes with a paragraph that describes in lay language exactly what that work is all about, and what kind of diseases it impacts, and what kinds of basic science discoveries are being made," Gumucio says.

For nonscientists, the beautiful, vividly colored images can captivate the eye — and the mind — at the same time.

Science is exciting. … And beneath every single new discovery lies the beauty and complexity of cells and tissues.
Deborah Gumucio, Ph.D.

At first, the pictures may appear as seemingly abstract splashes of color and texture. But those who look closer or read the descriptions can get a glimpse into a microscopic world.

For people who have a particular disease or lost someone they loved to such a disease, a picture like this becomes more than a piece of art. It's a symbol of the battle scientists are waging every day against that condition on behalf of patients everywhere. It's a chance to "own" their disease.

For the scientists, making their work into art brings another kind of connection. It's a chance to get their work out of the isolation of the lab, the lecture hall and the scientific journal and into the public eye. It can also mean a rare opportunity for lab-bound scientists to talk with people who live with the diseases the scientists are working to understand and treat.

In some cases, selling scientific art can also help the science move forward by bringing in new funding.

Embryonic stem cells, which hold promise for regenerative medicine because they have the potential to become any cell type in the body. This image will be for sale as a print at this year's Ann Arbor Art Fairs. (Credit: Yue Shao, graduate student in mechanical engineering, Fu and Gumucio Laboratories; University of Michigan College of Engineering)


Preparing for the Ann Arbor Art Fairs

This year, more than 111 researchers submitted images from their work for consideration by a jury of artists and scientists from across the university.

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Christianne Myers, an assistant professor at the U-M School of Music, Theatre and Dance specializing in costume design, has served on the juries several times. "I get very curious about what something is, because I'm looking at these images with an artistic eye," she says. "And then I get to discover what it really is — a piece of bone or a cell or cancer. And some of those are inherently beautiful."

The competition was so intense, a second panel of judges had to convene for tiebreakers.

In the end, 13 images made the cut. Past winners have included a peek into the pituitary glands of mice, a view of the tiny, tube-shaped structures that stem cells can form as they organize into kidneys, and a snapshot of brain cells grown from people with bipolar disorder.

This week, Gumucio and her colleagues will staff the BioArtography booth at the Ann Arbor Art Fairs, selling framed prints and notecards of this year's winners and greatest hits from past years.

They also offer every image BioArtography jurors have chosen in an online store. And they've mounted exhibitions at museums in the area.

Gumucio says nearly 90 U-M graduate students and postdoctoral fellows have received funding from the proceeds of BioArtography sales. This has allowed them to travel to conferences to present their work and to connect with other scientists in their fields to collaborate and explore career opportunities.

In the end, Gumucio hopes the images convey the excitement she and other scientists feel about the promise of biomedical science.

"Science is exciting. The pace of discovery is accelerating in areas of personalized and regenerative medicine — approaches that have huge potential for treating or curing even the most difficult diseases and conditions," she says. "And beneath every single new discovery lies the beauty and complexity of cells and tissues."

This article was originally published on July 22, 2016, and was updated on July 18, 2017.

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