Innovating research, policy and education in synthetic and systems biology

Science as Muse

What happens when a leading scientist visits a group of first year illustration students at the Edinburgh College of Art (ECA)? The birth of a new field where the scientist becomes the muse. 

The idea was the brainchild of Astrid Jaekel, a teaching Fellow and course coordinator of first year illustration at the ECA. Astrid was keen to bring science into her classroom; the resulting - ‘Long Story Short' - is based on the idea of the Illustrator becoming part of the storytelling chain. First, they absorb and process information and then they turn the resulting story into artwork that will serve as a storytelling device.

As part of a 5-week long storytelling project, first year Illustration students met with three practitioners from different fields: Master storyteller David Campbell, Sculptor Duncan Robertson and Scientist Prof Bill Earnshaw. Each gave insight into their professions and the relevance of storytelling within their practice.

The final task of the project took inspiration from scientific methods of research as well as collaborations between artists and scientists. On the first day, students were introduced to the ASCUS lab at Summerhall, who provided them with basic microscope training, followed by an exercise of how to extract their cheek cells and stain them to reveal the cell membrane and nucleus. In the afternoon, the group then met Bill Earnshaw, Professor of Chromosome Dynamics at the University of Edinburgh and a member of the UK Centre for Mammalian Synthetic Biology, who spoke about his research, his ideas on art and science and shared his personal journey of becoming a scientist. Most interestingly, Bill pointed out similarities between Art and Science processes and how he himself was torn between becoming Artist or a Scientist. 

In response to the events of this day, students had to create an illustrated, sequential, narrative piece containing a minimum of four panels. Any discoveries arising from the day could serve as a starting point, and a playful approach was welcomed, which saw fact and science being turned into imagination and fiction. 

The young artists particularly enjoyed the creative freedom they were given and the fact that they could revisit and apply a lot of their learning from throughout their first year at ECA. There was a variety of outcomes including the educational, humorous, self-reflective and personal and they were very excited to share their work with the scientific community.

Astrid and her team are grateful to Prof Earnshaw, the UK Centre for Mammalian Synthetic Biology, and the ASCUS lab for making this exciting collaboration happen.