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Art in Science and Medicine: From Serendipity to Study Aid

What do you get when you combine technical and scientific acumen with an appreciation for beauty? At Penn Medicine, the answer is the art in science and medicine. And there is a lot of that available to appreciate these days. Earlier this year, the Perelman School of Medicine announced the winners of the latest round of its Art in Science competition, featuring beautiful visual images produced using methods of scientific inquiry. And next month, a relatively new medical student group will host its first-ever Penn Med art show to highlight the artistic talents of medical students, faculty, and staff.

These events are a testament to the fact that many of the brightest minds in science and medicine don’t limit their curiosity and creativity to technical tasks. Francesca Tuazon, a PhD candidate who created the first-place winning image in the graduate student category of the Art in Science competition, creates art as a hobby, and as an undergraduate, studied art history in Italy. “I think there’s a lot of creativity in science and how we display our data,” she said. “I try to combine them when I can.”

Art can open up a vital perspective on a clinician’s education and practice, too. Jen Siegel, a second-year medical student at the Perelman School of Medicine, also studied art in Italy as an undergraduate—and drawing anatomy was what sparked her interest in medicine. Now she is the president and founder of the new Arts & Medicine medical student group.

What does art in science and medicine look like at Penn? Here’s a quick visual tour (and a peek at some of the science behind an image, too).

Art in Science: Vertebral Discs, Mitochondria, Fish Embryos, and Salt

The winners of the 2018 Perelman School of Medicine Art in Science competition run the gamut, from serendipitous beauty found in the course of making scientific images, to images more intentionally composed to represent a larger concept. What they all have in common is beauty.

Winner, Postdoctoral Fellow Category: Cellular Organization of the Developing Mouse Spine


Robert Tower, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Ling Qin, PhD, created this prize-winning image of the vertebral disc in a mouse tail. It was stained to help show how collagen proteins are regulated over space and time during the development of the disc.

First Place, Graduate Student Category: Part of Our World


Francesca Tuazon, a doctoral candidate in the lab of Mary Mullins, PhD, created this composite image to resemble the Earth and phases of the moon using zebrafish embryos. Each pinprick spot, whether white in the moon-like images, or blue or green in the Earth-like one, represents a single cell that is bustling with a specific type of growth factor signaling. “In the Mullins lab, the zebrafish (our model organism) is our world,” she said. Tuazon uses a variety of methods to visualize and quantify the process called BMP signaling. The BMP signaling pathway is an important biochemical mechanism by which individual cells in a growing embryo differentiate top from bottom, front from back. In a zebrafish, that differentiation happens fast—in a window of time between 4 and 12 hours after fertilization.

“An early embryo is just a ball of cells,” Tuazon said. “They have to figure out which ones are going to be part of the nervous system on the back of the embryo, which are going to be part of the digestive system or the heart, in the belly of the embryo. BMP sets up a critical axis of the embryo. This is one of the key functions of BMP signaling, and one of the earliest essential events of embryo development.”

By playing with different types of displays to visualize the amount of BMP signaling inside different cells of the embryo, she used immunostains to represent different amounts of the protein she is interested in. The green dots represent areas of high BMP signaling. When Tuazon saw the blue-green patterning in an embryo stained this way, she found inspiration to create the Earth and moon image.

The “moon” images she made to orbit the Earth are all different visualizations of a single zebrafish embryo, shown in a way that sets different thresholds for the amount of BMP signaling that must be present in order for a cell to be visible. From the left, the “new moon” measured with a high threshold would only show cells that had extremely high BMP signaling, whereas on the right, the “full moon” measured with a low threshold shows that most cells have at least some very low level of BMP signaling. In the slivered half-moon images, the “light side of the moon” has higher signaling than the “dark side of the moon” and is destined to become the embryo’s ventral side, or belly.

Second Place, Graduate Student Category: Mitosis


Andy Moore, a graduate student in the lab of Erika Holzbaur, PhD, created this image which features mitochondria, the cell’s energy-producing structures, in red, and microtubules, part of the cell’s internal skeletal structure, in cyan. The image shows mammalian cells undergoing cell division—a time when the microtubules are critically important for helping to direct mitochondria from the original single cell into the newly divided daughter cells. 

Third Place, Graduate Student Category: Crystallized


Anthony Martin, a medical and master’s of translational research student in the lab of Robert L. Mauck, PhD, discovered this serendipitous “broken glass” image of ordinary salt on an image taken with environmental scanning electron microscopy. The intended subject for the scan were foam blocks made of polycaprolactone and coated with hydroxyapatite (HA). “These foam blocks are used as end-plates on tissue-engineered spinal disc replacements, and the HA coating is meant to increase bony ingrowth,” Martin noted. “While scanning this sample, we found a patch of residual sodium chloride salt that had crystalized into a shattered glass pattern.”


Heart 22


Art in Medicine: Artistic Anatomy Lessons and Penn Med Art Show December 3

Basic and translational scientists aren’t the only ones at Penn Medicine engaging in art. Last year, when Jen Siegel was a first-year medical student taking anatomy classes, she wanted to use her art background to help her classmates both study and unwind at the same time. “I was interested in using art as a stress-free way to approach anatomy and reinforce learning,” she said. With four like-minded classmates, the Arts & Medicine student group started holding art sessions, inviting medical students to pick challenging topics in anatomy, and draw them together. “In the process of sitting down to draw each and every individual part, I feel like I was learning the material and reinforcing it in a more relaxed environment,” Siegel said. (In a story in Penn Medicine magazine last spring, Lizz Card, now a third-year medical student, and also an accomplished artist, expressed a similar sentiment.)

The Arts & Medicine group has also held paint nights and co-hosted a lecture on art, neuroaesthetics, and mental health by Anjan Chatterjee, MD.

On December 3, the group will host a Penn Med Art Show, featuring a variety of artworks from members of the entire Penn Medicine community. Students, faculty, and staff can RSVP to contribute their own work—or anyone can RSVP to attend—by Nov. 23, here.

“Everyone is doing so many creative things outside of school and teaching,” Siegel said. “It’s exciting to see how people are engaging in creativity beyond just medicine.”

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