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January 9, 2020 | Inc. Magazine
Listening to artist Deirdre Murphy explain her fascination with the patterns made by lights in nighttime cities, Tabb Sullivan experienced a thrill of recognition. Sullivan is a senior scientist at Integral Molecular, a biotech company in Philadelphia that discovers antibodies to fight disease. For three years the company has invited artists to spend several months in its labs to create--through observation of and interaction with technical employees--a body of work reflecting some aspect of microbiology. The science inspires the artists. The proximity to artists is meant to make the scientists more creative.
Murphy, a Philadelphia-based artist who, among other things, creates paintings based on avian migration patterns, kicked off her residency in July 2018 with a talk to Integral's staff about her work. The light patterns she described in her remarks reminded Sullivan of viruses spreading cell-to-cell under a microscope--a visually compelling diffusion he thought Murphy would find intriguing. He wanted to show her. But there was a problem. "We don't work with live viruses," Sullivan says. "So ours can infect a cell once. But then they can't go anywhere."
So Sullivan needed to spread a virus without using viruses that spread. The solution: He took the part of a virus that makes new viruses and added it to a cell in a petri dish. He then infected the cell with the original virus, which was now unable to replicate itself. The cell put the two pieces together to make a new virus--but one that cannot spread infection. Murphy studied the resulting patterns under a microscope and incorporated them in a sculpture of a sky dome spattered with stars. As for Sullivan, the technique "gave me a new tool I may be able to use in future research," he says.
The juxtaposition of disparate people, disciplines, and cultures is a popular strategy for creativity, practiced by everyone from chefs to CEOs. Involvement with art, in particular, correlates with success among Nobel Prize winners in the sciences and other left-brain exemplars, according to research from Michigan State University. In Silicon Valley several large tech companies--including Facebook, Google, and AutoDesk--have introduced artist-in-residence programs over the last few years as a way to stretch employees' thinking and come up with imaginative applications for products. The practice dates back to the 1960s and corporations like IBM and Hewlett-Packard.
Ben Doranz, CEO and founder of 62-employee Integral Molecular, which is based in Philadelphia's uCity Square innovation district, believes smaller, entrepreneurial firms also can benefit. Scientists and artists have a lot in common, says Doranz, a molecular biologist, MBA, and sculptor. At Integral, he says, "people ask provocative questions that don't always get answered. Artists do the same thing."
Integral's program is a collaboration with the University City Science Center, the country's oldest urban research park. Another resident of the Science Center is the Esther Klein Gallery, whose curator works with Doranz to identify artists who explore science-related themes and invite them to submit applications. The gallery also hosts exhibitions of work created during the residencies.
The program, Doranz explains, is largely externally focused, aimed at showing a public with little understanding of what goes on in a biotech company the process by which ideas become treatments for things like breast cancer and rheumatoid arthritis, two diseases Integral has addressed. Processed through the interpretive lens of art, the science becomes more accessible: understood not as technical abstraction but rather via the senses and emotions. Art, Doranz says, is a better ambassador for his business to the wider world than charts and graphs.
Doranz believes greater understanding of how scientists transform questions and ideas into treatments for disease may also encourage people to approach their own medical decisions--for example, whether to vaccinate their children--more thoughtfully. (Several organizations with similar goals, including the Knight Foundation, share funding for the program.)
Inside the business, "the artists make us see the world from a different perspective," Doranz says. "The creative dialog sparks ideas in both."
How much are you worth?
Genefer Baxter and Marco Locatelli have traveled 4,000 miles to watch their genetic material get whipped around in a centrifuge. Dressed in white lab coats and safety glasses, they peer over the shoulder of Integral senior scientist Joe Stafford as he measures, dilutes, spins, and ultimately extracts the artists' RNA from cells harvested after their immunization for tetanus. The scientist performs a concentration reading to make sure the samples contain RNA before sending them out for sequencing, which will reveal the antibodies they've developed.
"We want to tell a story about ourselves through our immune response," Loctelli says. "To show our similarities and differences."
Baxter and Locatelli--part of a Berlin-based group called IMRSV Arts--are finishing up their three-month residency at Integral, the company's fifth. Their specialty is interactive art: using things like heartbeats and brainwaves to generate patterns of lights and sounds. They will deploy the results of their sequencing--two Excel files full of letters--along with other data, ideas, and processes they've collected during their residency in an immersive exhibit here later this year.
"The theme of our project is valuing the human body," Baxter says. "We will show through the sequencing that the body's value can be quantified--but what exactly is that value?" The subject, she points out, raises sensitive questions about everything from privacy to this country's history of slavery.
As for the artists' effect on the business, Baxter says during the residency she and Locatelli asked lots of questions about why the scientists work the way they do and what was and was not possible. The scientists explained every step they performed and the broader purpose of each process, "some of which had become routine and standard to them," Baxter says. "Revisiting certain procedures seemed to reinvigorate them."
Stafford would agree with that assessment. "Normally we are focused on antibody discovery, not on human genomes," he says. The Berlin artists' work "got us thinking about, 'Where is that line between genetics and profitability?'" More concretely Stafford, who has worked with four artists including Murphy, is now investigating dyes that are compatible with chicken cells to incorporate into his experiments. "Talking and looking at some of the paintings Deirdre was doing inspired me to make my cells different colors so I could look at the data in two dimensions instead of one," he says.
The transcendence of tedium
The artists often use laboratory tools in their work, and training them can also be revealing for the scientists. Senior Scientist Tom Charpentier instructed multimedia artist Laura Splan in Pymol, a molecular visualization program he uses all the time. After playing around with it, Splan discovered a function called "sculpting" that allows users to quickly make changes to models of proteins and their interactions. Charpentier didn't know it was there. "I had never thought about sculpting my models," he says. "Now I can do things much quicker and visualize things more easily."
Splan has continued working with lab tools in her Brooklyn studio, where she now conducts rudimentary experiments. (For example, she is trying to get bacteria to express a green fluorescent protein she can use as a dye.) But her residency last year focused less on science than on the work of scientists. "I was fascinated with the tedium and repetition involved in the laboratory protocols" compared with the public's perception of scientific work as a series of eureka moments, says Splan, leading a tour on the opening night of her exhibition at the Esther Klein Gallery. (The gallery--also part of the Science Center--hosts showings for all of Integral's artists-in-residence.)
A screen on one wall displays a continuous video loop in which a white-coated arm extracts from a test tube cells suspended in fluid. A round, latch-hooked rug in shades of brown is made from the hair of llamas and alpacas that are used--with no harm to the animals--in the search for antibodies for human drugs. (Doranz solicited other labs and gathered 200 pounds of the fiber for Splan's project--far more than the artist had any idea what to do with.) "The llamas and alpacas themselves are a form of invisible labor in the lab," Splan says.
In another room--past more hanging llama hair and an inscription from the book Microbiology for Dummies--an animation of a protein produced with Charpentier's software twists eerily on a screen in response to recorded disruptions to its molecular structure. On the wall beside it are four words in neon: "Sit around and wait."
That quote comes from Stafford. It's what he says you have to do for the two minutes cells spin in a centrifuge. "A lot of science is just sitting around waiting for your experiment to do whatever it needs to do," he says. "I thought it was just a saying. I never expected to see it in lights."