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The Art of Science

Confocal image showing communication between brain cells

Confocal image showing communication between brain cells Sam Lane

1 December 2009

Distilling the aesthetic from everyday scientific research.

Getting involved in an annual art competition wasn’t something that PhD student, Becky Jones, was expecting, but this year she took on the organisation of a long-standing faculty art exhibition, with surprising results. With a new name — The Art of Science — and an exhibition in Explore-At-Bristol, the scene was set to engage members of the public with the unexpectedly beautiful world of science.

Inspired by similar events at other universities and through contacts with At-Bristol, Becky set to work. “I’ve always been interested in art,“ she said. “I felt that taking inspiration from our everyday scientific research and sharing the results with the public would make the competition more appealing to fellow students.”

The fresh-take on the competition attracted renewed interest from science students across the faculty. 55 entries in total were submitted, ranging from line drawings and graphs to beautiful fluorescent confocal images, a way of taking visual slices through samples using a microscope. Entries were judged by a panel including the Chief Executive of At-Bristol, Goéry Delacôte, Andrew Price and Professor Anthony Walsby, emeritus professor from the School of Biological Sciences.

“This is a way of showing another side to science; that it’s not fixed,” said John Gillespie, whose confocal image of synapses in a motor neuron was a competition winner. “We don’t know ourselves what the outcomes will be and that’s what makes it so exciting. By exhibiting art inspired by our work to the public, we are showing science’s creative side, using this to open up conversations about our research.”

“The competition encouraged us to look at our work, even if it wasn’t obviously aesthetic, and to find beauty and form in unexpected places,” said Sam, whose confocal image of a rat’s brain was another competition winner. “It was surprising how beautiful all the entries were. The competition also opened up new ways of talking about our work with other colleagues.”

The exhibition in At-Bristol provided opportunities to bring scientists from labs together with members of the public in an open space, well suited to science exploration.

“It’s important to build links with the city by communicating research to the public creatively”, said Becky. “And we also annotated each entry, using clear language, so that the public can understand the images they are looking at. This is also a good test of our communication skills”.

Becky has big plans for the future of the competition, aiming to encourage more entries and further enhance the links between the University’s science community and the public. Initiatives like this enable the public to find out about University research and provide a chance for researchers to talk about their work with new audiences. The Art of Science has encouraged people to look at science in a different way, perhaps even inspiring the scientists of tomorrow, and showing that beauty truly exists in the most unexpected of places. 

Further information

The Art of Science exhibition runs from 7 December 2009 to 18 January 2010 in the At-Bristol café, Anchor Road, BS1 5DB, open from 10 am each day. There is also a press release on the story.

Two of the students describe their winning entries

John Gillespie - confocal image of a fly neuron
In both flies and humans learning and memory is dependent on communication between neurons, which send information to each other at connections called synapses. As we learn, this process of communication at the synapse becomes more efficient at message transmission. The image shows a fly neuron (green) with synapses (magenta). Understanding the mechanisms which regulate communication between neurons in flies provides important insights into human learning and memory.

Sam Lane - confocal image of brain cells
This picture depicts how different cell types in the brain communicate with each other in order to carry out a biological process. In order to image the different cell types, they were targeted with cell-specific fluorescent markers.

Please contact Becky Jones for further information.