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When Art Meets Science

Guo Dreyfuss Cell snRNP cover 2012Frank Oppenheimer, founder of the famed science museum in San Francisco, the Exploratorium, called artists and scientists “the official ‘noticers’ of society,” adding that “they notice things that other people either have never learned to see or have learned to ignore, and communicate those ‘noticings’ to others.”

Lili Guo, a PhD student in the lab of Xiaolu Yang, PhD, in the Department of Cancer Biology and Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute, is most definitely an official “noticier.”  

Art is in her genes. So is science.

She comes from a family of artists. Her father is a professor of lithography and her mother is a graphic designer for a major publisher, both in China. She has been doing art in many forms since she was five and has been trained in many classical forms: “It has been part of my daily life since I was very young.”

Despite this family influence, she says, “I thought I would be following a family tradition and become an artist, but I was always interested in science and did well in it. I thought art would be my career and that science would be my hobby, my side line. I realized if I pursued art, though I couldn't do science, in China. But, I could never leave science behind.”

To keep art in her life, she designs cover images for journal articles for Penn faculty, bringing the relatively unseen inner workings of cells to life. She started when Dr. Yang asked for her help coming up with a cover for a paper in Molecular Cell about tRNA in 2010. “This cover got published and we were all very excited,” she recalls.

Although in a cancer biology lab, her biomedical studies center on a protein’s role in cell death and neurodegenerative diseases, specifically how it protects neuron health during protein quality control processes.

Yang’s colleagues saw what Guo could do and that’s how things took off at Penn. So far she has designed over 15 submitted journal covers, the logo for the Career Development Association at Penn, and three entries for the Philadelphia Science Festival Art Exhibit in 2011, among other projects.

But her double career started before her doctoral work at Penn. While studying for an associate’s degree in art in China, she transferred to a four-year college majoring in life sciences.

While there, a professor recruited her to illustrate a microbiology text book: “It was a perfect fit of my major and my talent.”

Most of her work for the journal covers is designed on Photoshop, for example, the latest was for Penn biochemist Gideon Dreyfuss, PhD, for a cover on a recent Cell paper.

Specifically, Cell describes the concept of the paper, “sculpting a functional mRNA out of a pre-mRNA transcript involves coordination of multiple processing events, including pre-mRNA splicing and 3′ cleavage and polyadenylation. Previous work showed that components of these processes were interlinked because U1 snRNP that is crucial for splicing also functions to protect mRNAs from aberrant cleavage and polyadenylation at cryptic polydenylation signals (PASs)…U1 snRNP (U1) plays a key role in suppressing PAS usage throughout pre-mRNAs and that these interactions may serve regulatory functions.

The cover image depicts the molecular “struggle” between legions of U1 knight-like “defenders” protecting nascent pre-mRNA from the constant threat of cleavage and polyadenylation by Viking-like "hordes" riding on the tail of RNA. The conceptual design was by Dreyfuss and the artwork by Lili, Chonghui Ma, and Zhaoming Guo.

She is almost done with her PhD work and is now writing up papers from that research.

When stressed about research and the publication grind, art is her way to relax. “It’s a way to balance my life.”

And like Oppenheimer she has come to appreciate the commonalities in the process of art and science: each starts with teamwork, fills in details along the way, and explores different paths until a full form emerges.


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