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Molecular masterpieces at U of T

New exhibit at the Med Sci Building highlights relationship between the arts and sciences
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A new art exhibition has opened up at U of T’s Donnelly Centre. CAROLINE BELLAMY/THE VARSITY
A new art exhibition has opened up at U of T’s Donnelly Centre. CAROLINE BELLAMY/THE VARSITY

For millennia, the pursuit of knowledge, expression, and progress through the practice of the sciences and the arts has been central to the human experience. 

Although the two fields may appear to be fairly distinct and unrelated, they have continually influenced and inspired one another. Artists and scientists alike draw on the same essential principles of curiosity, creativity, and a lifelong dedication to learning when doing their work, sharing the ideals of understanding the world around them, and creating a better life for future generations.

A new art exhibition at U of T’s Donnelly Centre aims to celebrate the unique and fundamental relationship between the arts and the sciences through a photographic display based on molecular science. This series, consisting of 10 photographs inspired by the work done at labs at the Donnelly Centre, forms a mounted mural on one face of a wall in the Medical Sciences Building. The display, which opened recently, is now slowly opening up to be viewed by members of the university and will remain in place for the near future.

A great deal of careful planning and thought has gone into the creation and curation of this exhibition, which is now several years in the making. It was originally scheduled to take place in 2019, in order to mark the 15th anniversary of the inauguration of the Donnelly Centre, but was postponed until earlier this year due to the onset of the pandemic. 

Despite the many setbacks and delays they have faced, the creators of the exhibition remain hopeful that their work will serve to spark an interest in the sciences and a sense of curiosity about the world within the U of T community as well as the general public, as it was originally intended to do.

Professor Brenda Andrews, founding director of the Donnelly Centre who commissioned the artworks, hopes that the exhibition will bring forth a renewed appreciation for the beautiful side of the biological sciences, which can be easy to overlook when focusing on “[making] sense of data patterns and of what [is captured] under the microscope.” She believes that this art display will be an ideal way to share the beauty of science with members of the public and an accessible means by which viewers can learn more about and better appreciate the biomedical research being done at the centre.

Although Andrews stepped down from her role as director in 2020, her legacy of public education and outreach continues to thrive, with the creation of this exhibit being a fitting end to her tenure. One of the key principles of Andrews’ vision for the institute was to increase public awareness and interest in the sciences. During the three consecutive terms she served since taking on the role in 2004, she implemented several initiatives intended to inspire a love for learning and an appreciation for science within the general public in Canada, with many of these programs aimed specifically at young children.

Ronit Wilk, who curated and created the exhibition, has high hopes that these artworks will make the ‘magical world’ of cell and molecular sciences more accessible to the general audience. She is captivated by how her career as a scientist has enabled her to look into a world “invisible to most people,” and hopes to share the wonders of the molecular realm with members of the community through her artwork. 

Wilk’s connections with U of T and the Donnelly Centre go back several years. She obtained her PhD in the lab of molecular genetics professor Howard Lipshitz, and would go on to work as a research assistant in Professor Henry Krause’s lab at the institute, where she performed experiments in microscopy and worked on complex experiments involving fruit fly RNA. 

When preparing to assemble the display, she contacted all 30 labs at the Donnelly Centre for scientific images, chose the final 10 pieces to represent a cohesive colour scheme, balanced their composition, and unified them with a theme. She then rendered each of the images with processing software and laser-printed them onto aluminum panels.

One of the artworks is particularly meaningful to Wilk — the second panel on the bottom row, which depicts fruit fly embryos lit up blue with patterns of fluorescently-labelled RNA transcripts known as ‘long non-coding RNAs.’ The piece was adapted from a photograph that Wilk herself took while working in the Krause lab. Researchers working at this lab were the first to demonstrate that after genes are transcribed into RNA, the RNA molecules localize to specific parts of embryos and cells in order to ensure the proper timing and spatial organization for protein production. 

Although Wilk no longer works at the lab, she remains a strong advocate and supporter of the sciences and has donated 10 per cent of her artist fee to research at the foundation. 

Alongside Wilk’s photograph, the exhibition is made up of nine other images from labs at the Donnelly Centre, including the world’s first molecular map of a human liver, the interactions between all 6,000 yeast genes, a visualization of the human protein network, and pictures of nematode worms with glowing nervous systems in bright primary colours. The depth and diversity of work being done at the Donnelly Centre is well-represented in the selection of images, which provide a newfound way for us to appreciate scientific achievements at U of T and beyond. 

The molecular art exhibition will remain in place at the Medical Sciences Building for the next little while. Due to limitations on building usage on campus, it is currently still only open to members of the U of T community with access to the building, but will hopefully be available for viewing by the general public as restrictions continue to ease. Simple in design and effective in execution, this exhibit is an ideal marriage of arts and sciences that will hopefully inspire not only an interest in either field, but also a general curiosity for the world and an appreciation for the beauty all around us.