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The scientific work conducted at the MRC Mitochondrial Biology Unit has served as inspiration for public exhibitions through engagement with artists and designers. Visualization is an integrated part of our research process, and even though we produce state-of-the-art images for scientific use and for journal publications, we strongly believe that through engagement with artists and designers we form valuable ways of making the microscopic world more understandable to a wider public. At the MRC Mitochondrial Biology Unit we are very aware of the importance of artistic interpretation of our scientific ideas and results, and we are highly committed to this kind of public engagement. We have had a considerable degree of success in collaborating with artists and designers, and new projects are already being planned.
One of the resources for the Design4Science exhibition, curated by principal lecturer Shirley Wheeler (Faculty of Arts, Design and Media, University of Sunderland), and now displayed at the Medical Museion at the University of Copenhagen, was the scientific results produced by John Walker on the ATP synthase. The exhibition is a mixture of the results from a national (British) design contest, commissions from professional designers, and original work done by scientists ranging from scientific hand drawn illustrations through to three-dimensional imagery. Designers were given the option to respond creatively to one of five important scientific breakthroughs arising from the work of molecular biologists. The internationally acclaimed young glass artist, Colin Rennie, made a representation of ATP synthase. By using a powerful water-jet cutter Rennie recreated the three-dimensional structure of the molecule in a 780-kilogram cube of glass layers measuring 1 metre across.
Travelling around Britain and Scandinavia the exhibition has reached a large and diverse audience.
Nature wrote about Rennie's ATP synthase glass model: "Wandering around the well-known protein and virus models that resulted, one much more recent piece stands out: a dizzying ghost of a protein molecule mounted in a block of glass." (Nature, 2008 452:155)
Inspired by the structure of the G-Surface or Gyroid a design was made by Loop.pH for the launch of the Mitochondrial Biology Unit on April 1, 2009. The structure was discovered in the early 1960s by Alan Schoen and is commonly found in liquid crystals and polymers and, although being much more periodic, shares one essential characteristic with mitochondria: it describes a complex membrane that elegantly bisects space.
Loop.pH’s artworks investigate how scientific discoveries on a molecular level can be scaled up to architectural dimensions. The three dimensional model or space aids the understanding of complex form and enables a conversation about structure across different fields of art and science. Metabolic Media is the result of a collaboration between John Walker and the designers Rachel Wingfield and Mathias Gmachl, both from the design group Loop.pH. The design is inspired by the making of ATP and the scientific discoveries by John Walker. It is a mixture of woven and modular architectural structures, growing food plants, and solar cells.
Metabolic Media is part of the larger project Nobel Textiles – a larger collaboration between Nobel Laureates and researchers/designers from the University of the Arts London, Central Saint Martins College to create fabrics inspired by the scientific discoveries made by the Nobel Laureates. The work was exhibited as part of London Design Festival during September 2008 at the ICA and Saint James Park.
The Mitochondrial Biology Unit participates in the Cambridge Science Festival every year, and staff and students participating in the development of posters and events is very enthusiastic about it. As something new the posters this year was based on a highly visual design clearly emphasizing the importance of visuals in the research process as well as in the communication process. The posters explains how the body uses energy stored in food to produce ATP. To show how this works in principal, visitors were invited to try a special built bike to fill a cylinder with liquid and subsequently choose an apple or a malteser to cover the immediate energy consumption caused by powering the bike.
Marjorie Mikasen, an American artist who belongs to the “hard-edge” school of acrylic painting, attended a lecture given by John Walker in Lincoln, Nebraska and was inspired by the scientific results in ATP synthase to make the painting “Motive Force”. Marjorie takes her inspiration from science and technology, and her work has been widely exhibited in the United States and has been seen for example, at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.
The Mitochondrial Biology Unit is one of two main partners in a project that analyses how visualization is used in the creative process of scientific research and communication and, in the end, what makes a good scientific image. The objectives of this project is 1) to formalise ways of keeping the researchers in control through all stages of the scientific knowledge production by optimising the means of visual communication; and 2) in popular contexts, to analyse what makes a good image. Dealing with these problems is highly significant in order to make visual communication a matter of conscious choice, based on more than mere tacit conventions, and thus improve general communicative skills among researchers working on three-dimensional molecular structures.