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Painting What the Eye Can’t See

10/16/2012

While studying at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Lab (MBL), Lizzie Kripke 14 PT developed a "data-driven illustration" that helps scientists visualize complex cellular structures in cuttlefish skin.

Lizzie Kripke 14 PT knew she would get the chance to study marine biology during her summer internship at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Lab [MBL]. She also assumed she could explore her creative talents against a scientific backdrop. But the Brown/RISD dual-degree student – who’s majoring in neuroscience and painting – had no idea that her summer brainchild would yield a cutting-edge animation that allows scientists to perceive marine life in unprecedented ways. 

“We knew it was going to be a unique blend of science and art,” Kripke recounts. “But no one predicted the work was going to go where it did.”

Thanks to the Brown-MBL Partnership, Kripke worked directly under Roger Hanlon, a senior scientist at the lab and a Brown University professor who has studied the camouflage patterns and techniques of squid-like animals called cephalopods. For decades the biologist has documented the sea creatures’ ability to change their external colors in a matter of milliseconds. Cuttlefish, octopi and other members of the cephalopod family all blend in with their surroundings by stretching their skin while controlling pigment-filled organs.

But Hanlon also wanted to further understand how this process occurs ­– a question his team has been working to unlock for years. And so, he charged Kripke, his resident artist for the summer, with the task of creating visual representations of cephalopod skin on a cellular level – looking specifically at the “whitest” layers ever found in nature that were recently discovered on cuttlefish fins. The images had previously only been viewed under the lens of powerful electron microscopes. Using the animation software Blender, she rendered microscope data to help create the illustrations.

“It’s really beautiful,” Kripke says, adding that the structure depicted is called a leucophore. “It’s not a scientific illustration as we know it.” 

These “data-driven illustrations,” as Kripke calls them, not only gave Hanlon’s team a competitive edge when applying for grants or seeking publication, they allow scientists to see how the structures are constructed.

“You can take slices through it. The images really help to visualize the more complex structures in the skin,” she explains.

Kripke has the mental chops of a mad scientist in-the-making. Enrolled in the dual-degree program jointly administered by Brown University and RISD, she splits her time between campuses to fulfill degree requirements.

“People ask me what I want to do when I graduate,” she says. “I just want to connect the dots.”                 

And in her opinion, the scientific model itself could be a work of art – all part of the dot connecting process. Kripke became so interested in this concept that she linked up with Synergy, an MIT-based organization that aims to educate the public about science initiatives through art. She’s now helping to facilitate a four-month-long exhibition that will showcase oceanographic art at Boston’s Museum of Science starting in January.

“Is this art serving science or science serving art?” she asks. “Scientists are doing this too. I hope these images have a life beyond hidden computer files.”  —Abigail Crocker

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tags: academic collaborations, Brown, technology, research, Painting

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A figure modeling class from 1916.