Images Communicating Science, an Interview with Sarah Perry of the Kenis Group

bpj_105_8_cover1) How did you compose this image?

This image was composed in Adobe Illustrator using components that were generated using other software including VMD (http://www.ks.uiuc.edu/Research/vmd/) to generate the three-dimensional structure of the membrane protein bacteriorhodopsin, and Matlab to generate the image of the gyroid mesophase using code from John Enlow at Otago University (http://www.maths.otago.ac.nz/~jenlow/research/software/).  The image of the scattering pattern came from actual data that was collected at 21-ID-D (LS-CAT, http://ls-cat.org/) at the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory (http://aps.anl.gov/).

2) What prompted you to submit your image as cover art?

When our paper was accepted for publication in Biophysical Journal, my PhD advisor, Prof. Paul Kenis, forwarded us the email to let us know the good news.  As part of the acceptance email, there is a short paragraph encouraging authors to submit cover art.  My advisor asked if anybody had any ideas for cover art and I volunteered.

There has always been a strong focus in the Kenis group to develop powerful images to help communicate science, both in journal articles and in scientific presentations.  Because of this focus, developing scientific imagery is something that I have a lot experience with.

In the past my coworkers and I have put together artwork submissions for other articles as well.  These experiences were both fun and rewarding because it helped us to think about the big-picture ideas behind our research and how to use imagery to present them to a broad audience.

3) How does this image reflect your scientific research?

Understanding how the molecular machines function within our body has been a critical research focus in the past 50 years.  One of the most critical classes of these biological machines are membrane proteins, which sit across cellular boundaries, control the transport of material into and out of the cell, and mediate intracellular signaling.  The malfunction of membrane proteins has been linked to a wide range of diseases including diabetes, cystic fibrosis, and hypertension.  Furthermore, membrane proteins are the targets of more than 60% of pharmaceuticals currently on the market.

The function of membrane proteins is linked directly their structure, but determining protein structure is a tremendous challenge.  For membrane proteins, one of the most successful crystallization methods utilizes lipidic mesophases, which can be visualized as an interconnected network of lipid bilayers through which the membrane proteins can diffuse and ultimately crystallize.  However, even using these lipidic mesophases, the success rate of crystallizing membrane proteins is less than 1%.  One of the main challenges in protein crystallization is that there is currently no way of predicting what mixture and concentration of chemicals will drive a protein to crystallize.  For membrane proteins, we also do not understand how these chemicals affect the mesophase environment.  A goal of this research is to develop our understanding of the behavior of these lipid mesophases such that we may eventually be able to predict conditions that will help to drive protein crystallization.

This cover image shows how small-angle X-ray scattering (SAXS) can be used to characterize the lipidic mesophases that are used in the crystallization of membrane proteins.  The size and shape of the interconnected lipid bilayers is critical for the success of membrane protein crystallization.  By understanding the relationship between the structure of the mesophases and various chemical additives that might be present in a crystallization trial, we hope to eventually improve our ability to crystallize and understand the function of these critical molecular machines.

The image shows SAXS data for a Pn3m double-diamond bicontinuous cubic phase, a three-dimensional depiction of the gyroid bicontinuous cubic phase, and the structure for bacteriorhodopsin, the membrane protein upon which the crystallization-relevant conditions for this study were based.

4) Where do you see the artistry in your image? How did you come to see this?

The artistry here comes from highlighting the scientific importance of our research in a beautiful image.  The graphs and the data in the paper itself are important for explaining the details of our science, but cover art is something that will really catch the reader’s eye and allow them to connect with our work.

5) 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?

I was very excited that my artwork was chosen for Biophysical Journal.  Initially, I really struggled to develop the artistic presentation of the research described in our paper.  In the past, most of the research I have been involved with centered around both protein crystallization and microfluidics, two topics which lend themselves easily to beautiful visual imagery.  However, the work presented in the current issue of Biophysical Journal was very graph and data heavy.  It took me several days of brainstorming and several failed attempts before I came up with an idea that I really liked.

For me, having my art chosen for the cover of Biophysical Journal is an affirmation of my visual and artistic skills.  I really respect professional artists and graphic designers, and the fact that artwork that I personally designed and executed was chosen for a journal cover has really boosted my confidence as an artist.

6) Do you consider yourself an artist as well as a scientist? Any ideas or aspirations for your next science-as-art submission?

Mostly I would consider myself to be a scientist, but art is about communicating an idea through different media, something that is critical for science.  While most scientific data needs to be described using a graph, communicating the impact or the “big picture” idea behind scientific research can often be done more effectively through a powerful image than through text or data.  These types of images can not only convey the beauty of science, but can also reach out and inspire a broader audience.

For my next science-as-art submission, I am considering submitting artwork for the Materials Research Society Science-As-Art (http://www.mrs.org/science-as-art/) competition.  I also have several papers that will be submitted for publication in the coming months, and I hope to include cover art submissions with each of them.

7) Do you have a website where our readers can view your recent research?

The work described in the article highlighted by this journal cover can be found at the Kenis Research Group Website (http://www.scs.illinois.edu/kenis/).  Since participating in this work I have graduated from the University of Illinois and am working as a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Institute for Molecular Engineering (http://ime.uchicago.edu/) at the University of Chicago.  The work that my current research group is pursuing can be found at (http://ime.uchicago.edu/tirrell_lab/) and on our group website at (http://tirrell.ime.uchicago.edu/).

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