Genetics, art and communication

Dr Ahna Skop is a Professor in the Department of Genetics and an affiliate faculty member in Life Sciences Communication and the UW-Madison Arts Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She mentors both scientists and art students in her lab, and also serves on the board of the Wisconsin Science Museum, where many of her artscience collaborations are on display. Some of her work can be seen in the main entrance of the Genetics/Biotechnology Center building on the UW-Madison campus with a 40ft-scientific art piece called “Genetic Reflections”. She has also curated and contributed to a traveling exhibition of scientific art called “TINY: Art from microscopes” from the UW-Madison campus, and she has organized the bi-annual Worm Art Show for the International C. elegans Meeting for over 24 years. Ahna is a winner of the prestigious Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE).

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Ahna Skop: I am the child of artists. My father, Michael Skop, was a bit of a Renaissance man and was a classically trained fine artist who studied with Mestrovic (a pupil of Rodin) and also taught college-level anatomy. My father operated an art school at their home studio for over 30 years and attracting artists, musicians, and philosophers from all over the world. My mother was a high school art educator, ceramicist, and has dabbled in fiber art, sculpture and painting. My two sisters and brother are also graphic and industrial designers. I have embraced my parents’ love of creativity in everything I do. I majored in biology and ceramics at Syracuse University (1990-1994), where my father had played football and studied with Mestrovic. I received my Ph.D. in Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (1994-2000) and conducted my post-doctoral work at UC-Berkeley (2000-2003).

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your ideas and working practice?

AS: Miro is my favorite artist. His work is very biological to me. Ramon y Cajal is another science artist that I love and inspires me. My father, Michael Skop, was also a huge influence on me.

RB: Your genetics research seeks to understand the molecular mechanisms that underlie cell division. Can you say more about this?

AS: I work on how cells divide particularly the midbody, a long forgotten remnant of cell division, now plays a role in intercellular communication.

RB: You are both a Professor of Genetics and an artist. How do these two disciplines combine creatively in your work?

AS: They don’t combine at all. I am one. It is who I am and therefore how I approach, see, and understand my science and art and the world around me.

HeLa cells at the end of cell division surrounded by midbodies by Ahna Skop

RB: Your book, Genetic Reflections – A Coloring Book, co-authored with Elif Kurt and Caitlin Marks, aims to inspire young students and the public to explore the beauty of science and genetics. Can you say more about this?

AS: Our book is an extension of our 40ft science art piece by Angela Johnson (artist) and myself (science artist). It’s an ABC book about model organisms, evolution and genetics with imagery from the actual art piece in it.

RB: You manage a food blog,  , which describe as “experimenting in my home laboratory”. How does art, science, and cooking intersect?

AS: Cooking and baking are just home chemistry experiments. Understanding the principals of how flavors, heat, cold, oils, and water combine together with creativity are similar to what we do in the lab.

RB: Do you think artists and scientists share any common communication path?

AS: All humans communicate with each other, whether you are a scientist, artist, hairdresser or kindergarten student. Visual, oral, and written communication are important in all aspects of our lives.  Some certainly are better communicators than others. And being a good listener is also important.

RB: Collaboration between the arts and sciences has the potential to create new knowledge, ideas and processes beneficial to both fields. Do you agree with this statement?

AS: Yes.

RB: What future projects are you working on?

AS: I’ve just opened a science art home decor store called: skopology with my sisters who are both designers. It was a brainchild of mine during the pandemic as a way to do science outreach with the public by curating science inspired items that I have found over the years as I was remodelling my home (entirely with science art inspired lighting, art, tiles, etc). All with goals to improve science literacy and understanding through the beauty of science. Hopefully, it will inspire others to install mitosis chandeliers in their home?

My other goal is to highlight science artists from around the globe on the site (similar to Saatchi art) and we have several science/artists partners.  We have our first one, Phoebe Deutsch, who is a ceramic artist from Oakland, CA. More to come in the next few weeks.

I’m also building a community and cookbook about scientists called Lab Culture: a recipe for innovation in science.

Lab culture is about bringing people from all over the world together to share their love of food, science, and culture. How are these connected? It started with a group of friends who happened to be scientists. Though science is often portrayed as a sterile and solitary endeavor, these friends found that shared meals inspired great new ideas, fruitful collaborations, and the discovery of ways that we are different and similar to one another that helped form deep and lasting connections.

Lab culture: A recipe for innovation in science is a cookbook and website community that aims to humanize the public’s view of scientists by highlighting scientists from all over the world through the lens of their cultures, favorite foods, stories, and scientific journeys. This idea stemmed from my love of food, cooking, and many lively scientist dinners that I have participated in over the years.  At these dinners a great deal of laughter, memories, life-long friendships, collaborations, and innovative ideas have been generated


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