Behind the Cover: Q&A with BJ Author and Cover Artist Jennifer Ross

The image on the cover of the May issue of Biophysical Journal, released Tuesday, was created by Jennifer Ross, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Ross, a Biophysical Society member, has agreed to provide some insight on how the image came to be, on her research, and on her lab.

May 2011 BJ Cover Image

Q: How did you compose this image?
Ross: We made the image using Illustrator. The background was made by using an image on the internet and overlaying blocks of color to replicate the shapes in the dojo. The dragons were drawn by hand and scanned after looking online for images of Japanese-style dragons. The head was colored and shaded in Photoshop and sent to Illustrator. The body was opened in Illustrator, where we used ovals to overlay the entire body to represent the scales of the dragon. The ninja Drosophila flies were drawn directly in Illustrator. It took about two days of work, but it was a well-deserved reward for the acceptance to the Biophysical Journal.

Q: What prompted you to submit your image as cover art?
Ross: A colleague and my office neighbor just got the cover of Physical Review Letters (PRL), and he hung the image on his door. That made me think that this would be good publicity for our lab, so when Biophysical Journal asked for an artistic cover, we decided to try.

Q: How does this image reflect your scientific research?
Ross: The entire image is an allegory for our paper in Biophysical Journal! The ninja flies are wielding Japanese “katana” swords. Our protein is named “katanin” after these swords, and the construct we use is a Drosophila version, hence the flies. This concept of Japanese swords prompted the entire style of a Japanese ninja dojo. We needed the swords to cut the microtubules, as they do in our assays, but plain microtubules were very boring. So, we decided to make the microtubules into red dragons. We found in our study that the katanin cut at lattice defects, or protofilament shifts, in the microtubule lattice.
We represent these shifts as a change int he number of scales in a given row. We also found that the katanin preferentially severed from the plus-end of the microtubules. We represented that as the flies with katana swords to cut the heads off the dragons. In the background of the dojo are representative two-color images from our paper. They are hanging as posters. In the center, the Japanese kenji say “katana.”

Q: Where do you see the artistry in your image? How did you come to see this?
Ross: As described above, the entire artistry was prompted by the data itself and the name of the protein, “katanin.” Interestingly, many people told us that the image was too outrageous for the cover. But, we had looked at over a year’s worth of Biophysical Journal covers, and we had seen several of this style. We weren’t confident we would be picked, but we decided to give it a try. We figured, if it didn’t get selected, we would just print a high-gloss version to frame for ourselves.

Q: How does it feel to have your image chosen as the cover of an issue of Biophysical Journal? What is the significance of this for you?
Ross: We were ecstatic to have our cover chosen! Achieving the cover of the Biophysical Journal is a nice cherry on top of having the paper accepted to the premier journal in the field of biophysics. Especially as a young investigator who is still pre-tenure, having the exposure of the cover of the Biophysical Journal is a big deal for me and my lab.

Q: Do you consider yourself an artist as well as a scientist? Any ideas or aspirations for your next science-as-art submission?
Ross: I definitely love art and the idea of marrying art with science is very exciting to me, but I have never really been an “artist”—at least not professionally. The union of art and science has the ability to transcend the difficulties associated with science for many people. When you can represent your results in a single cartoon, people can take that away with them. In addition to art, my lab makes a music video every summer. We have three on our website posted from YouTube. The first we did was a 90’s rap, “This is How We Do It.” The second was science spoof of the heavy metal classic, “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” by AC/DC called, “Physics Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.” The most recent was a spoof of the Lady GaGa and Beyonce hit, “Telephone,” we called “Microscope.” Most of these videos highlight our biophysical methods and microscopies in the new lyrics. We will be doing a new one this summer, but we haven’t yet picked the genre or topic.

Additionally, as an educator, I focus on training interdisciplinary students at the life science-physical science interface. I just finished teaching “Optics for Biophysics,” a course where interdisciplinary sets of students learn optics to build a microscope.  In the course this spring, I had five life science students, and I was always thinking of new ways to describe the material.

Q: Do you have a website where our readers can view your recent research?
Ross: I have a website for my laboratory where you can find my publications and our science spoof videos: http://www.people.umass.edu/rossj/Ross_Lab.html.

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Founded in 1958 to encourage development and dissemination of knowledge in biophysics, the Biophysical Society does so through its many programs, including its meetings, publications, and committee outreach activities. The Society's members, now over 9,000, work in academia, industry, and in government agencies throughout the world.
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