Science

The Art of Science

Meet Anna Dumitriu. An artist who, quite simply, likes to turn bacteria into art. Known as the founder and director of the ‘The Institute of Unnecessary Research’, this group is a collaboration between artists and scientists who work to cross boundaries between art and science. She is also an artist in residence on the UK Clinical Research Consortium’s Modernising Medical Microbiology project. Winner of the 2012 Society for Applied Microbiology Communication Award, Anna represents an emerging trend of partnerships between artists and scientists that have the potential to engage more people in science from an entirely different angle.

Anna tells Impact Science that she’s particularly fascinated with microbiology – “I have two strains of Staphylococcus aureus up my nostrils!” she says.

She works hands-on with a number of infectious bacterial strains, all of which have to be killed before they’re taken out of the lab, and for her latest exhibition investigating tuberculosis, she’s made a series of miniature felt lungs infected with strains of Mycobacterium Tuberculosis.

She works hands-on with a number of infectious bacterial strains, all of which have to be killed before they’re taken out of the lab.

“It’s probably the strangest part of science”, she explains. “It’s incredibly important to humanity, and the more research that goes into microbiology, the stranger this world gets. There are millions of bacteria in our bodies and they form an integral part of our immune system. They’re strange and they are everywhere”.

One of the projects Anna is most proud of involved using MRSA and antibiotics to create different patterns on a quilt. This was a public workshop in the V&A and attracted a lot of interest from people who had little or no knowledge about bacteria.

The advantages of artwork like this are really that they encourage conversation, Anna explains: “As people can take part and get involved in the craft, it can help them to understand more about it”.

The division between arts and science is arguably a modern distinction, as historically, scholars often worked in multiple areas. Leonardo da Vinci, for example, was a scientist, mathematician, artist and writer all at once. These days, we tend to narrow down our specialisations to a particular field, but, can looking at problems from multiple angles help us understand more about the subjects in question?

“As people can take part and get involved in the craft, it can help them to understand more about it”.

Anna doesn’t see any distinction between science and art, and for her, interest in science based artwork was a logical progression from childhood. “I don’t like seeing a division between art and science – or really any divisionary boundaries between art, history and science,” she says. “I think it’s more about a way of understanding the world”.

There has been a recent increase in the number of scientific organisations funding art projects with the aim of enhancing science’s communication with the public. Wellcome Trust funded projects such as the ‘Aware Collaboration’ is an example of scientists working with composers and poets. It marks the publication of findings in ‘accidental awareness’ – the sensation where some patients are able to recall their experiences of undergoing general anaesthetic.

Andrew Morley, the anaesthetist involved, says: “These experiences are often very potent and poetic. A scientific report can’t always quite capture that. Sometimes we need the arts to step in and fill the gap”.

So can science actually benefit from collaboration with the arts? Is it able to convey things that science can’t? Anna thinks so: “People who don’t always respond to science communication can respond to an emotional side through art. With art, rather than straight public engagement about science, it makes you think”.

Faiza Peeran

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Image: courtesy of Anna Dumitriu

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