Art for science's sake

January 10, 2018
Illustrations by Amanda Kwieraga, '15, words by Kim Catley

There’s a dance happening in the small notebook that Amanda Kwieraga, ’15, carries with her everywhere, with art and science taking turns as the lead.

Notes about the complex concepts she learned in her biology graduate program at the University of Southern California and at her new job at a San Diego biotech startup sit next to sketches that help her untangle stem cell biology, immunology, and disease. The most promising of them become paintings that explore visual interpretations and metaphors.

She begins with scientific concepts and sources but soon shifts to an artist’s perspective. When an idea feels solid, she polishes the sketch in Photoshop and translates it to wood, outlining the design in ink and filling it in with paint.

Take Circuit Cell (image 5). A professor of Kwieraga’s once described cells as robots, able to communicate using pathways that resemble a computer’s. Kwieraga painted a cell with its nucleus resembling a hard drive. Tendrils of circuitry transmit information within the cell and out into its environment. That piece later evolved into a painting of muscle tissue (lead image, and image 6), each muscle cell with its own CPU reaching out to nearby cells.

“I felt like a lot of scientific art is jumbles of pathways or really intricate drawings of anatomy,” says Kwieraga, who majored in art and biology at Richmond. “I didn’t want to interpret the biology that way. I wanted to make it more conceptual, more fun, more interactive.”

1. “Metastasis”

There’s a precise moment when cancer cells break away and spread to other tissues, marking the transition to stage four cancer. “It’s curious to see, here’s how metastasis starts,” she says. “And if we can look into if those cells have specific markers for metastasis, perhaps we can prevent tumors from spreading in the future.”

2. “Retina”

In this literal translation of a microscopy image, Kwieraga wanted to capture the “incredible detail” of the layers of nerves in the inner retina.

3. “On the Surface”

When she started her series, she wanted to explore cells as conceptual landscapes. In this close-up view of a cell surface, proteins and receptors take on the qualities of Seussian trees, waving against a backdrop of plasma membrane.

4. “Neuronal Forest”

“Neurons have dendrites and axons that reach out to other cells and I thought, ‘They kind of look like trees,’” she says. “It’s basically showing the motor neuron as something more abstract.”

5. “Circuit Cell”

“I really liked when my professor said, ‘Cells are like robots,’” she says. “At the same time, I didn’t want to just draw a robot as a cell. So I started thinking about what else has set pathways to communicate with other devices. That’s where the idea for computer circuits came from.”

6. “Synthetic Muscle”

Cells can communicate with each other through complex, specific pathways—much like a computer motherboard. Here, Kwieraga depicts cell nuclei in muscle fibers as CPU chips, all communicating with one another through a system of interconnected circuitry.

7. “SynNotch T Cell”

Here, a sickly-looking cell plugs into a synthetic notch T cell that has been engineered to produce a disease-specific response without the off-target effects commonly seen from treatments like chemotherapy. “In this painting,” she says, “it’s telling the cell to create antibodies against that cell. So you see the DNA come out of the nucleus. You see the production and the release of these antibodies.”