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Painting What the Eye Can’t See
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.”
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
tags: academic collaborations