Science and art

Several weeks ago I was at the International Society of Behavioral Ecology’s meeting, and they had a very special event: actress Isabella Rossellini did a Q&A during a showing of her recent short film, Mammas! She is not only an actress, but also a graduate student in Animal Behavior and Conservation at Hunter College in New York City. She has produced several film series about animals, including Green Porno and Seduce Me, in addition to Mammas. These films are delightful–they accurately represent animal behaviors and mating systems with wit and humor. If you haven’t seen them, definitely check them out! Mammas is about parental care in animals, Green Porno is about strange mating behaviors, and Seduce Me describes mate choice and courtship in a variety of species.

One of the really interesting points brought up by the Q&A is how art has the opportunity to discuss potentially controversial topics in science in a way that is acceptable, and how art may actually be able to serve as an educational tool. In Mammas!, Isabella Rossellini depicts animal behaviors by dressing up as the animals and then doing what they do. Bookending these entertaining displays are short scenes of her portraying human mothers, wishing they were in the situation of the animal being described. This format does a fantastic job of humanizing the animals (making them more relatable) without anthropomorphizing them. Importantly, the information is delivered in such a way that the audience learns without feeling lectured or patronized, and the videos can be really funny. This approach to delivering science information–matter-of-fact but with humor–is a great way to educate the public about science.

Often art and science are thought of as incredibly separate–almost opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of departments or majors at universities and colleges. However, Isabella Rossellini has clearly demonstrated that the two disciplines can actually be complementary. Science can inspire art, and art can inspire science educators to utilize non-conventional teaching methods and styles. Isabella Rossellini’s films also bring up an important reminder to us researchers, who can be focused on incredibly specific topics, that getting bogged down in details is not necessarily the best for educating and garnering support from the broader public. Although the Mammas films are accurate, there are some small details that are not exactly scientifically correct. But the films deliver the spirit and overall interpretation of the body of research supporting the our knowledge of the behaviors, which was the ultimate goal. If the films had depicted the level of detail that researchers require for their work, the films would likely lose some of their spark and would not be as engaging to the broader audience. Ultimately, it seems that science and art can complement each other in many ways, and I only wish there were more examples of the two working together!

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Basic Lessons in Biology: Cells

I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with my family in the past couple of months, and every time I talk about my research (aka my life) with my family, I realize how much jargon and scientific mumbo-jumbo clouds peoples’ understanding of the most basic biological processes. So I’m going to start writing some descriptions of biological things and try to make them as jargon-free as possible.

First up: Cells

Every cell is like a factory. Within it, there’s the nucleus, where the DNA is located, and in the factory analogy, that’s where the manager is with the blueprints for the product. There are assembly lines (ribosomes, endoplasmic reticulum, golgi apparatus) that take the instructions from the DNA and turn them into a product (proteins). The process of translating DNA into proteins is one that I’ll be talking much more about in future posts. There are vehicles (vesicles) that transport the products to other parts of the cell and to the world outside of the factory. There are generators that provide the energy needed for all of the functions of the factory (mitochondria). Each cell is a somewhat specific factory: cells in the heart are making different products than the cells in your stomach. Cells in different organs have very different jobs, and so have to make very different products. However, every cell has the same DNA, which is why in crime TV shows they can take pretty much any biological evidence (hair, skin, blood, semen, etc.) and be able to compare that to the DNA of the suspects. So how can the same DNA result in such different cells, so that some cells create the eye and others create skin?

Animal Cell Diagram

Animal Cell Diagram

Think about how a car company might manufacture cars. The executives of the company know how many of each type of car they want to produce, and they give that information to the people in charge of making each type of car. Each type of car has to have its parts produced by a factory and then assembled. So the main office of each factory has the information from the executives regarding the overall plan of the company (how many of each car type to make), and each factory has their specific job to execute to achieve the company’s goal. Together, the factories create entire cars, which together make up an entire fleet. In this example, the instructions from the executives are like the DNA. The managers of each type of car are the organs, and the factories that produce parts for specific types of cars are the cells within each organ. Putting everything together, the cells make up the organs, and the organs make up the entire organism, just as the car parts make the cars, and all of the types of cars together make up the fleet that the company has produced.

If the car analogy is not intuitive, you could also think about it like how a fashion runway outfit might come together. A fashion designer has a vision for what the final outfit will look like, including clothing, accessories, makeup, and hairstyle. However, the fashion designer has people working to on each part of the overall look, so that there’s a makeup specialist, and someone sewing the clothes. These people also rely on the manufacturers of the things they use (cloth, makeup, etc.). Based on the overall plan from the fashion designer, each group completes its task (e.g. making the clothes, applying the makeup, styling the hair) and accomplishes one part of the plan. Together, all of the pieces come together to make the whole ensemble. In this example, the DNA is the fashion designer’s plan, the organs are the people working to execute each component of the overall plan, and the cells are the people, objects, and manufacturers that allow the components to come together.

That is an explanation of how the same DNA can lead to cells having very different functions, but I also must describe the mechanism behind how cells differentiate to have specific functions, as well as how those many cells are organized into complex tissues, organs, and organisms. Cells send and receive signals, often in the form of chemicals or proteins. Commonly known examples of these types of signals are hormones (long-distance signals that communicate with cells throughout the body), neurotransmitters (short-distance signals between individuals cells in the brain), and immune response protein receptors (short-distance proteins on a cell that receive information from other cells and affect their own cell). These types of signals help communicate to a cell where it is in the body, and tells it to use the particular parts of the DNA that need to be used. Cells of similar types are organized into tissues. Muscle is a really good example of a type of tissue. Tissues are combined together to make an organ, which in turn make up organ systems, which make up an entire organism.

Cells -> Tissues -> Organs -> Organ Systems -> Organism

Cells -> Tissues -> Organs -> Organ Systems -> Organism

So, to summarize: cells are like little factories, and cells receive signals from the outside world telling them what their jobs are. Cells performing similar jobs are grouped together into tissues, and those tissues combine to make organs. An entire organism is composed of organs all working together to keep the organism alive.

Next lesson: DNA transcription & translation (turning DNA into proteins)

Please let me know what you think of this first lesson! I’d love feedback to improve, and if there’s a particular topic you’re interested in, please let me know. Put it in the comments!