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A Conversation with Ben Doranz at Integral Molecluar

By Mina Zarfsaz

When did you first become interested in incorporating art into your lab operations?

I've always been interested in art and science. Obviously my job is in science so I don't get to use art on a day to day basis here, although I do outside of work. A couple of years ago, the Esther Klein Gallery was hosting Paul Vanouse who was using DNA as the substrate for his art and we were able to help him set up since the nature of his project was a live experiment. His exhibition won an Award of Distinction at Prix Ars Electronica 2017 in Linz, Austria. That was kind of the starting point for us to think of an artist residency program because there's a lot to say in biotech, science and research that doesn't get communicated to a larger audience, and art bridges that gap. All this led to our first residency with Orkan Telhan from Penn and our second residency now with Laura Splan which is sponsored by the Knight Foundation Grant.

Paul Vanouse, The America Project, 2016, photos by Jaime Alvarez

What about Laura’s (the current resident’s) process as an artist stands out for you?

A couple of weeks ago she was experimenting with one of our scientific software programs that we usually use to visualize proteins and study what their structure looks like. But Laura was making the application do things that we've never done before, and we have been using this program pretty much every day for the last 10 years. I think it is awesome to see it being used as an artistic visualization tool, to make proteins fold in ways they never would naturally. Proteins aren't meant to be stretched and folded and prodded that way, but that’s the perspective an artist-in-residence brings, a new viewpoint.

Can you think of an artist whose work relates to your scientific practice?

When I was thinking about initiating this program, one of the people I talked to is a local artist named Greg Dunn. Greg has taken his neuroscience background and applied it to art in a really interesting way; essentially reproducing in art what is happening in the brain, sometimes in abstract ways and sometimes in a literal way. I find his exhibits and pieces a good way of meshing science and art together.

Greg is also involved in a program sponsored by the NSF (the National Science Foundation) to bring artists and designers together with science. Integrating science and art is a natural connection and an interest from the NSF and other government organizations.

Laura Splan at Integral Molecular

How do you see the interaction between the artist residents and your team? how does the program impact your team?

Everyone is really enjoying the work and interactions with Laura. She's been sitting next to a number of other scientists and they have gotten to know each other pretty well through casual conversation or by peering over shoulders and overhearing conversations. For instance, we talk about mouse-human chimeras or llama-human-chimeras. and what does that mean? when I say that, you might picture some mutant alien form, a centaur perhaps. From our perspective we use those terms all the time to describe molecules and isolated proteins, not the whole organisms.

It has been fun seeing our vocabulary, research, software, and conversations through a new perspective. Also, many people at the company are artists as well as scientists, so bouncing around ideas for textiles for instance or learning about other ways of artistic expression has been a lot of fun.

Next we will have more words on how other scientists' experience is being shaped by working with artists in the lab.