Redesigning images in science

A biologist, an artist and a philosopher explore drawing as a tool to rethink biological processes...
31 May 2019

Interview with 

Gemma Anderson, James Wakefield & John Dupre, University of Exeter


When students are learning to be scientists, the pictures they learn from are often just a few static images. But in reality, things happen continuously, so still images are always going to miss something. So a group at the University of Exeter decided to get together to represent the process of cell division in a radical new way. Combining the expertise of artist and researcher Gemma Anderson, cell biologist James Wakefield and philosopher of biology John Dupré, a new image was made. An image that shows the whole process of cell division, and not just a few steps. Talking to the team, Adam Murphy heard how the project came to be, beginning with James Wakefield...

James - I never really thought about how I did the science that I did. And as I’ve gone through my 20 years of research, I think it kind of became apparent to me that the default way in which we do science is through this kind of a historical reductionist approach: where you are looking at a live process, something that's going on in the cell - in my case cell division - but you're trying to reduce that down to its component parts. And although that's incredibly useful, there is something missing in terms of what that meant for the cell, if you like. And when I first got to know of John's work, it struck me that the processual view of life was one that had been under-explored in terms of scientific practice, especially in the world of cell biology.

Adam - But how do you create these new images? Artist Gemma Anderson takes me through it.

Gemma - What we're trying to do is to reintroduce drawing into scientific practice, but in a new way, if you like. Because we're not trying to represent scientific objects so much as we're trying to represent scientific processes. So we're trying to think about the process - say, for example, mitosis, or protein folding - as dynamic. We start off with the entire lab; that might be, you know, around six people, postdocs and PhD students and researchers in the lab, and then the P.I. of the lab. So I bring along materials, and questions, and suggestions, and structures that we can use to draw; and then we use the drawing to sort of create a consensus about understanding; then we find new ways of drawing the processes that emerge throughout the session. So they're very productive, they're very collaborative, and they're very helpful to sort of generate new questions for both the scientists and for me as an artist.

Adam - But how hard is it to snap out of your old modes of thinking and look at these images as they were meant to be looked at? James Wakefield.

James - Yes, it is very difficult to do that. And I think that's that's reflected in our publication, in the first two or three of the drawing labs. Both Gemma and I worked incredibly hard to try to release the PhD students and the postdocs from the habit and the learned practices of drawing what you see in terms of things, rather than in terms of processes.

Adam - But philosopher John Dupre seems to think this might not be a bad thing.

John - I think it probably is hard, but I think that may be one of its great virtues: that if people go to the trouble to try and work out why we ended up representing the process the way we did, then it may be really helpful in reflecting on the extent to which they are thinking in an appropriately static ways about the phenomena.

Adam - But what did other academics in the field think of these images? Back to James Wakefield.

James - I think that was one of the one of the most rewarding parts actually of the project. The approach that we took was to show them the final picture first, without any words, without any clues, and without anything to guide them as to what it might represent, apart from saying, “this is a representation of mitosis and cell division”. And so the response that we got from those four individuals was, as I say, incredibly gratifying in one way: in that they were able to really articulate the essence of what we were trying to represent, even though we haven't really told them what it was at all.

Adam - And what are the implications of this work? John Dupre.

John - We hope that it will encourage an awareness that drawing isn't just a way of producing pictures which you could produce much more easily by using some kind of automated technology, but that it’s a way of interacting with phenomena in knowledge-generating ways.

Adam - And finally, Gemma Anderson takes me through the wider implications.

Gemma - When you think about art and science, and how lots of students in school quite often feel a bit torn between, “I like biology and art”. One is more about studying the creative process of, you know, life; and the other is more about engaging in creative processes. And I think what's nice about this project is how we're actually encouraging learning and understanding living processes through the engagement of creative artistic processes, and that seems to work very well.


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