Publications »a-n Magazine »October 2011 »Hijacking natural systems

Jo Berry approached me after finding my website which contained microscopy images from my scientific experiments. On meeting we connected immediately and Jo became fascinated by the image technologies through which University scientists study drug action (pharmacology). The Cell Signalling group in the School of Biomedical Sciences, of which Nick and I form part, has a world-class reputation in using microscopy to understand drugs and their target cell receptors. We quickly made the decision to look at ways of combining our mutual interests in scientific imaging and the arts. First we needed some money! Beginning in 2010, Jo, Nick and I designed a project to entice the public to examine art and our science with fresh eyes - which was then funded in part by the scientific research charity, the Wellcome Trust.
The outstanding feature was that Jo should immerse herself in the science by first spending time as a researcher in Nick’s laboratory in Cell Signalling. She used microscopy to study how ghrelin works - an appetite hormone that helps decide how much to eat, and which might in future be targeted by drugs to combat obesity. Being a digital artist Jo was able to readily take on board the image analysis software and ended up working as a proper scientist with minimal supervision - a real benefit to us with our busy schedules. Our interactions introduced Jo to fundamentals of scientific thinking and research, but also enabled us to show Jo and the public just how beautiful the images were that we produce. Jo completed the scientific cycle by defending her findings at a national conference and was able to experience first-hand its dynamic atmosphere. The scientists at the conference were genuinely fascinated in this unique collaboration.
One of our real desires was to get more people interested in our science - what we do and why it’s important. So the interest shown and publications generated in the media and in the scientific field have been fantastic for us, and have raised our profile across Europe and beyond. A film-maker and publicist employed in the grant, and the Wellcome publicity officer have made significant contributions to raising awareness of our research. The use of digital media and the publications resulting from the project has given us a number of ideas to use in the future alongside our usual peer reviewed journals.
We do see and interpret the images very differently as artists and scientists - and the common ground here is quite limited. For us it’s really important that we study what is in the image without altering anything and biasing our results, whereas Jo’s instinct is to be wonderfully creative and change them beyond recognition! So in the end, Jo produced some fantastic abstract artwork but the scientific basis of the underlying images wasn’t that obvious. In future collaborations we would probably set out a clearer plan together to ensure that the scientific message we want to get across is preserved along the way - especially in the exhibitions.
I think we have some common problems in the arts and sciences in terms of the funding pressures that are coming our way - which is why projects like these, which help explain our scientific research to the taxpayers who foot the bill, are so important to us. Maybe the innovative example shown by our work will lead to more crossover arts and science projects being funded in the future.
Tim Self
The concept for ‘Hijacking Natural Systems’ was developed over two years after a lot of discussion, conversation and meetings in the School of Biomedical Sciences, University of Nottingham. I spent one day a week for six months working in the Cell Signalling Research Group, where I was introduced to the scientific process behind hypothesis-driven research into pharmacology. I gained hands-on experience of fluorescent-imaging experiments and production of cell images for analysis. In layman’s terms the research undertaken looked at ‘hunger hormones’ and their receptors, which determine how hungry we feel.
Initially I emailed the Head of the School, Professor Terence Bennet, followed up by a meeting with Tim. We immediately got on - he is very creative, and interested in photography and the arts. I was very fortunate to meet such interesting and open people to discuss a project with.
I sat in on several live cell-imaging experiments to give me some understanding of the facilities available before we even embarked on applying for funding. I was also given short films and still imagery from the labs, so that I could experiment and produce a series of pilot data/artwork. The whole environment intrigued me, especially the microscopes. There were many threads of association and areas of interest for me in this scientific environment. I was also interested in the new technology as a very logical but creative discipline. Visually, the imagery produced in the labs really fascinated me and I could see a strong association with some of the work I was developing at the time and I felt that new visual stimulus would strongly enhance my work.
I met Nick a few months later, after I had visited the Department several times and had more of an idea of what it did. Nick runs a research group and he emphasised to me that to really get a grasp of what they do in their department it was important for me to work as a scientist would. He designed the research project in which I could participate and showed me how to conduct a series of experiments. Tim worked with me on the microscopes and imaging.
The two scientific aims of my project were first to demonstrate that trafficking of the ghrelin receptor within cells could be quantified and used to derive the pharmacology of different types of ghrelin receptor drug. Second we developed methods to study the effects of this drug and the receptor simultaneously.
I was able to follow the full extent of the scientific process - from the conception of a hypothesis, through the experimental design, execution and analysis, to data interpretation and its communication to a scientific audience. I experienced a full range of imaging techniques. I observed the differences between traditional microscopy and automated imaging systems. I also had the opportunity to try advanced imaging methods, and the use of more physiological cell systems. For the initial imaging and image processing that was done for my work I extensively used specialist software and developed a range of new imagery through experimenting with this software.
This project has been a unique experience and I am keen to continue developing links and ideas through devising another project that involves scientists. This project has given me the opportunity to create artwork to highlight to a wide audience an arts and science collaboration where the research I was inspired by was such a current and important issue for our health.
I am in awe of scientists and their investigations and I admire and respect what they do. But I am definitely not a scientist so this project took me way out of my comfort zone. It took me away from my artistic comfort zone into a world of science, maths, logic, rigour and lab books. But it also opened up opportunities to use new techniques, new technology, fantastic source material and wonderful software.
I would really encourage artists and scientists to work together. It is a challenge but if you can find reference points and allow each discipline to be inspired by the other it can be a very fruitful experience. Scientists need to open their doors because they are places of wonder and knowledge and ideas, and interested artists will be able to feed from this unique experience, which makes for great and interesting collaborations with lots of potential.
Jo Berry
Tim Self is a Chief Experimental Officer in the School of Biomedical Sciences, University of Nottingham. He manages and develops the imaging facilities and technologies within the Cell Signalling Group. He trains and teaches research staff and post graduate students in all aspects of imaging research. He is involved in a range of research collaborations across the University and has scientific publications in medical research areas such as pharmacology, heredity deafness, meningitis, stem cells, neurodegenerative diseases and lung cancer.
Nick Holliday is a lecturer in molecular pharmacology in the School of Biomedical Sciences, University of Nottingham. He runs a busy research team investigating drug receptors that are potential targets for treating diabetes, and obesity, and other metabolic diseases - using various imaging techniques to study how the drugs work at the molecular level. A lot of his time is spent getting funding for this research - from the government research councils, charities, and the pharmaceutical industry - and presenting the lab findings in papers and at conferences. But he still tries to do an experiment of his own occasionally. He is also involved in undergraduate teaching to medical and pharmacy students, and the next generation of research scientists.
Originally from Burnley, Jo Berry studied Natural History Illustration, Illustration, Graphic Design and Printmaking. Exhibiting widely throughout Britain, her work is well regarded, with pieces in the Victoria and Albert Museum (London) and in Arts Council England (ACE) East Midlands Offices. In 2002 she completed work at Loughborough University as an Advanced Research Fellow funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC). Since then, she has been continuing to develop and explore her understanding of technological processes in order to push the boundaries and possibilities in the design and production of site-specific artwork for unusual architectural (indoor and outdoor) spaces through exhibitions and public art commissions.