Tune in weekly to our virtual series “Seventeen Minutes of Science” every Tuesday at 11am PST / 2pm ET where we go live on Facebook with a new guest each week to talk about how science and biotechnology is woven into their lives for (you guessed it) 17 minutes!
For episode 56 of 17 Minutes of Science we are joined by Dr. Ahna Skop, a Professor of Genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to talk about how art and science intersect and why an interdisciplinary approach to the two subjects can be beneficial.
Ahna Skop is a geneticist, artist, author, and a winner of the prestigious Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). Her lab seeks to understand the molecular mechanisms that underlie cell division during embryonic development using the nematode, C. elegans as a model system. Failures in cell division often lead to birth defects, cancer, and age-related neurodegenerative diseases. Understanding how cells divide is highly dependent on in vivo microscopy and large amounts of visual data, which dovetails perfectly with one of her other passions, art.
Dr. Skop grew up surrounded by art – her 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. Her father operated an art school at their home studio for over 30 years and attracted artists, musicians, and philosophers from all over the world. Her mother was a high school art educator, ceramicist, and has dabbled in fiber art, sculpture and painting. Her two sisters and brother are also graphic and industrial designers. She has embraced her parents’ love of creativity in everything she does. She majored in biology and ceramics at Syracuse University (1990-1994), where her father had played football and studied with Mestrovic. She received her Ph.D. in Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (1994-2000) and conducted her post-doctoral work at UC-Berkeley (2000-2003).
Dr. Skop 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.
Dr. Skop is also passionate about increasing the numbers of underrepresented students in STE(A)M fields. In 2016, she was awarded the very first of two, Chancellor’s Inclusive Excellence Award for her outreach and inclusive teaching efforts. She has served as a board member for SACNAS (Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science) and currently serves on the ASCB (American Association for Cell Biologists) Minority Affairs Committee where she has broadened her impact on underrepresented students in science nationally. Dr. 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.
Dr. 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. In 2008, she was awarded an honorary doctorate of science from the College of St. Benedicts and was named a Remarkable Women in Science from the AAAS. In 2015, she was honored as a Kavli Fellow from the National Academy of Sciences. In 2018, she was awarded the first ever
Inclusive Excellence Award by the ASCB and HHMI. She currently serves as an advisor to the chief diversity officer at the NIH (Dr. Hannah Valantine), on the ASCB Minority Affairs Committee, and is a diversity consultant to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI). In 2019, she was honored as one of 125 Women in STEM with a AAAS IF/THEN Ambassadorship. Her science and art have been featured by Apple, The Scientist, USA Today, Smithsonian, PBS.org, NPR and Science magazine. One of her great hobbies is cooking/baking (including scientific cakes!) and she manages a foodblog, foodskop.com, in her free time. Dr. Skop, along with her two sisters, recently started their own own business – Skopology – which is aimed at bringing science-inspired art and decor into your own homes.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:00:10] Welcome, everyone, to 17 Minutes of Science. My name is Sarah Cheesman, and I am your host today. It’s nice to be back. As we wind down summer, I’m really delighted about our guest today, who is Dr. Ahna Skop, who is joining us from Madison, Wisconsin, where she tells me it’s been a very wet summer in contrast to us in the West, which has been very dry. So Ahna is a professor in the Department of Genetics and affiliate faculty member in Life Sciences Communication, and the University of Wisconsin Madison Arts Institute at University of Wisconsin, Madison. So she mentors both scientists and art students in her lab. Which is what we’re going to talk about today. And she serves on the board of the Wisconsin Science Museum, where many of her art-science collaborations are on display, and the focus of Ahna’s lab is understanding the molecular mechanisms that underlie asymmetric cell division. She does mammalian model, uh, cell culture is her model system, but she has a background in C. elegans, which is likely how we became friends on this show. So I’m going to turn it over to Ahna to say hello, and then we’re going to dive into science, C.elegans, and art.
Dr. Ahna Skop (Guest): [00:01:18] All right. Greetings, everyone, from Madison. I’m excited to be here. And thanks for coming.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:01:24] We’re delighted to have you. And we’re also excited to learn more about what’s behind you, the backdrop. I know we’re going to talk about it. I urge everybody to check out Ahna’s website when we’re done here. We’ll post that on the links because there’s a lot to see. She’s a very busy woman and we only just touched the surface. But we will get started by saying, or talking about how you grew up surrounded by the arts. And can you tell us a bit more about your childhood and how that influenced the ways you work with art now in your professional life, and otherwise?
Dr. Ahna Skop (Guest): [00:01:59] Yeah, I grew up in uh, and basically an art student. My parents were both artists. My dad was a sculptor, an art professor, my mom is a ceramisict, and an art teacher and all of my – I’m the oldest of four and my brothers and sisters are all graphic. And my brother’s an industrial designer and they’re all kind of marketing gurus. And so art, as we found out, is used in every business around the world. And it’s very important. And my family, my brothers and sisters make a lot more money than I do as a scientist. So art is more important than you think. And there’s a lot of money in art if you’re very good at it. And so my family are extremely talented people. And you would assume that being a scientist, I’m the black sheep in the family, but in fact, I’m not. I’m still an artist. And so I have – I got a ceramics minor as an undergrad. I’m actually currently doing it now with my lab on the side. So we do it every Thursday night. So that’s been kind of fun. But it’s been it’s been part of my life. There is no difference between it. I’m never in and outside of it. It’s just part of who I am. And the art side of my life allows me to see things differently than others. And that’s kind of where the magic happens and discoveries are made. It’s your perspective, your background and your upbringing. You bring to science these qualities that allow you to see things and observe things in different ways and also to communicate them in different ways. And so, yeah, that’s sort of my upbringing in a family of artists. I went as my undergrad, but I got my Ph.D. and got away from art in a little way. But I always was doing hobbies in the arts all the time. I make jewelry. I make cakes that look like scientific things. I draw them, you know, so any place that I can like, I can utilize that side of communicating science in in that way. It’s just that’s part of who I am.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:03:58] That’s awesome. So you said that you have an undergraduate degree in the arts, but then graduate school took you towards the STEM fields in biology.
Dr. Ahna Skop (Guest): [00:04:06] Yeah.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:04:06] What pulled you in that, that direction at that point in your life?
Dr. Ahna Skop (Guest): [00:04:10] Well, when I was an undergrad, I, probably my favorite course was developmental biology. I started looking at this developmental biology book, and I had never seen embryos before from different animals. And I was stunned by the beauty of embryos in general and how diverse they were, but yet similar at the same time. But the beauty of a structure that’s near and dear to many people’s hearts is microtubules, and actin, so the cytoskeleton is a very beautiful structure. And so when I first saw the first confocal image of the C. elegans embryo, which turned out to be my future mentor’s, a Ph.D. mentor, I actually circled that picture. And I realize later on in life it reminded me of a Miró painting. And I love Miró. And it looked exactly like the centrosomes and spindles of the cell. And so I think for me as an undergraduate, that view of that course realizes like, wow, I can still do art and be a scientist, because there’s actually there’s so much beauty in biology, and I had no idea that you could discover pieces of artwork in your own body. And I think that’s the cool part of science, is that it kind of surprised me. And I think that course really sealed the deal. I was like, okay, I think I want to do this. I don’t know anything about it. And my family didn’t have experience, except they love biology, like they really love biology. My mom actually used to make jewelry out of things, used to dissect. And so there was this, always this kind of mash up in our family between science and art. But yeah, I mean, really, the fact that I can discover pieces of artwork in my body in different human cells is, is kind of an awesome job. Right. So, yeah, definitely love it.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:05:58] That’s a great way to sum that up. I had a similar experience in my developmental biology course as an undergraduate. That was the thing that suddenly made me realize how amazing biology really was in an applied sense and the beauty of it. Yeah. To take pictures like that. It’s just incredible. Especially the worms. I mean, that I can just visualize that image you’re describing.
Dr. Ahna Skop (Guest): [00:06:21] Yeah.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:06:23] So, what the worm embryos is so beautiful for. So I guess that that ties into another question that we can talk about, which is that art and science traditionally are thought of this as sort of separate subjects. But everything you just said goes against that and bringing bringing those concepts together and that they impact one another. So tell us more along the lines of what you just started to say about what you see as the biggest benefit of bringing those two fields together in your work.
Dr. Ahna Skop (Guest): [00:06:51] I think for me, the biggest, I mean – they’re beneficial. They’re there, whether you like it or not. But the critical thing is that people forget about is communication. So from the dawn of time in science and art have always been communicating to everyone else what you are seeing. Right. And so communication makes science accessible to everyone. And I think we often think of science as expensive and inaccessible because you need all of this stuff. But in reality, if you can draw and write and observe, smell, taste, touch, feel, all of these things that artists are in tune with as well. You can actually be a scientist. Why? Because you can communicate what you’re seeing, what you’re seeing in nature and what you see in your data analysis and how you view things. And so it is – both of those are really important to understand the world around us, like artists and scientists do these things, right? We have to interpret the data. We have to communicate the data in a simple way. And you need a sensibility of art and aesthetics to do that. And I think for me, the greatest – like as Einstein said, the greatest scientists are always artists as well. And it’s very true, that they’re really excellent communicators: visually and verbally and orally. Right. And both of these, both of these fields require creative and critical thinking about problem solving. And so I, you know, to me there’s no separation. And I think for me, school always was a struggle because they were separated. But in reality they’re really just, you know, they’re doing the same. And they always feel like, oh, you’re going to make a lot of money if you’re going to be a scientist or a medical doctor. Vice versa. But the art is always there. And they’ve been separated out as different fields, but they’re critical for each other. And I think we’re not two dimensional beings as scientists. We’re not robots that do that. We’re thinkers and dynamic people that think about things and problem-solve different ways. And I think that’s where having a hobby or career or a past in art, or using it all the time, is really important because it allows you to see things in different ways. And that’s certainly where magic happens, um, because you saw something that someone else didn’t see. And you formed a hypothesis and you went after it and then you communicated what you found to people. And that’s the fun of science and that’s the fun of also art. You discovered a beautiful thing and you would like to paint it and you would like to share it with someone else. Right. Those kinds of things. Same kind of thing. So, yeah, I think that our education system has compartmentalized our thinking here. And it’s, for me, growing up in a household of artists, I struggled through school because I had to do that. But I found my way and I realize I didn’t have to separate myself. It’s impossible to separate myself. I have to just be myself. And I think when I talk to students and try to understand that, you know, if you have a pencil or you can touch and feel and observe things, you’re a scientist. You know, you’re discovering the world. And I think that’s what the piece there that, you know, I think is the biggest benefit in understanding. And certainly some scientists are not good communicators and artists, but some people aren’t either. It’s all there – it goes both ways. You know, like there is some skill and creativity and thought and perspective and your background is also equally important of how you view and traverse your own, you know, life and world and science and art.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:10:29] Well, I think we’re all on board with the idea of diversity of opinions and views helps us move forward and see things differently, and that benefits everybody.
Dr. Ahna Skop (Guest): [00:10:40] Yeah.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:10:41] I love that. So tell us more about – you have organized and curated the bi-annual Worm Art Show at the International Worm Meeting. Tell us about that and what that’s like.
Dr. Ahna Skop (Guest): [00:10:55] So I started that as a third-year grad student. I saw – I started going to science meetings and I also was working on the microscope. And I went to the science meeting, and was like, why aren’t scientists sharing the things that they’re seeing, you know, things that not, necessarily wouldn’t go into journal articles, but they’re actually the beautiful things that might just get saved for your own personal use. And so I asked my mentor, who was organizing the meeting at that time, could I do this art show? Because my family had we, we created art shows, my brothers and sisters and I would would sit and serve drinks at the bar, at openings at art shows. I was used to doing this. And so my mentor says, you can do anything you want, but don’t involve me. And so and so I said, all right. And so I – this was, you know, this was before, the Internet was just starting. So it was hard to get information out. But we put, you know, we put a request in for the art show. And to my amazement, the first art show we got glassblowers that were sandblasting the genome onto bases. We had people doing mobiles of the larval stages of C. elegans in driftwood. You know, they were finding things in their normal life. And then my own mentor, John White, entered the wooden model he had made of a reconstructed vulva from the C.elegans. And that was like he’s like, oh, I had this in my closet and I thought I’d enter it. And so that was like even though he said he didn’t want to involve me, it was kind of like this cool things. He built that so that he, and the rest of the team at that time working on that project, could see what they were talking about in three dimensions. And I that’s where the discoveries were made. And so that was kind of cool to see it. You know, John White, who mapped the entire nervous system of an organism, was building a wooden cell by cell drawing of this vulva reconstruction. So that was kind of cool. And I realize he supported me in my own way and really loved it. And he, the other thing that John and I had in common is he also – I’m dyslexic. And so he also said he was, too. And I was surprised at that time that he had a keen interest in the arts too. I think we’re both visual – we were kind of these visual learners and thinkers about how we do things, but we may have not been perfect at school, but the way we saw the world was in similar ways. And so he gave me the confidence to continue doing this art show. And, you know, it’s been running for twenty-six years, you know, and it’s very popular. And, well, certainly lots of companies love it because we get a lot of – it’s probably the most popular thing at the meeting. Again, this year, we crashed, I thin, Zoom because so many people wanted to see the winner. And so that was kind of awesome. But what it really is, is people want to see real people in science and they see each other doing these creative outlets. It’s kind of like we’re starved for like, reality, like in science, because we feel like we have to water down our life and we don’t. We’re real people and we have different interests, and some people do needlework and some people do ceramics and some people paint. And it’s just so cool and refreshing to see that when you see that at a meeting. And so I think that’s why people really like it, because we see each other as ourselves. We’re not you know, a robot scientist, right. We are really cool, interesting people. And from that art show came the reality is that I belong in science. Like I realized, oh, well, look, all these creative people, I’m also creative. And so that’s kind of cool. So I didn’t recognize when I was younger how creative the sciences were until I started to do that. And so it kind of, it’s kept me in science for sure the art show, because I realized that I’m just not alone. You know, I think you can feel like you’re alone, but you’re not. So I assume that’s why it’s continuing. And certainly it’s launched a lot of other people’s careers and side hustles on Etsy. And so Etsy kind of came into that. And so now people have access to sell their own science. And it’s certainly a whole new genre of stuff that people are really interested in buying. Why? Because they’re interested in the world around them and the beauty of science.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:15:16] Yes. And sometimes the wonderful, esoteric nature of having a piece of art like that and then finding someone else who understands what it means. You know, at the core, whether they have a background or not. What you’re saying about crashing the Zoom at the conference makes me think of the popularity of the dance your PhD annual competition, that there’s clearly such a an outlet for that too, right? How to express what we’re interested in in different ways. I’ve always thought that is so clever and funny and I always want to see it.
Dr. Ahna Skop (Guest): [00:15:47] It’s kind of like every science conference should have a talent show because we are all really talented other ways, because you want to see each other as our own unique people in a different way. And we want to see each other as real because we are real. You know, but we don’t often share the real sides with each other. And I think it’s just an outlet for that. So I’m grateful to be able to provide an outlet for up and coming science artists to realize they’re not alone either. But there’s a lot of cool people out there that are doing amazing things.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:16:16] Yeah, well, I’m sure it’ll carry on based on that momentum. That’s an amazing legacy that you’ve created. In our last minute, cause, can you believe it – there we are. Tell us about Genetic Reflections, your backdrop, the coloring book and that project.
Dr. Ahna Skop (Guest): [00:16:31] So this project is the dissemination coloring book of a big 40-foot science art piece that’s installed here in Madison. We also have a traveling piece. My two undergraduates, Elif Kurt, and Caitlin Marks, helped me put together this coloring book to disseminate this glass piece. And we thought we thought we would do it because it’s very accessible. And it’s the first coloring book of its kind for model organisms and sort of DNA together at this kind of student level. There’s certainly, there has been coloring books on genetics, but this is very specific for model organisms, and we certainly didn’t see that out there. But it communicates a lot of the imagery that is in the science art piece that we have here installed. And if you go to our website, you can see videos and images of genetic reflections and the reflections piece, which is not – it’s hard to do in the coloring book, but there’s a mirror and then a sandblasted genome of glass, and then you look into it and you reflect the genome inside of you. So you’re in there. So that’s what the genetic reflection actually means.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:17:39] OK.
Dr. Ahna Skop (Guest): [00:17:40] So it’s a very interactive piece. So when you go to see the videos online and you can kind of see what it looks like, the goal there was to try to get the young student, or the public to realize that the genome and these base pairs are inside of them. Right. And there’s beauty to it. And there’s also complexity and simplicity at the same time. And that’s what geneticists are doing. And so the piece walks through all these model organisms that are related to each other, and including humans. And so the same gene is found in all these different species. And this is in this piece. And so this is what the Genetics Reflection piece is. And Angela Johnson was my artist, my first MFA student, to help me with this project that we got an NSF (National Science Foundation) grant on, thankfully, to do this. And then the coloring book came from that. My two undergrads, all – most of almost everyone in my lab has science and art majors. So my undergrads all have this interest in the arts as well, they’re drawn to me for that reason, that I proposed this idea, and they worked as part of their life science communication internship in the lab to do this coloring book.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:18:57] Wow, that is very cool.
Dr. Ahna Skop (Guest): [00:18:59] Yeah, it’s pretty cool. So they’re very talented students. And, you know, as you could see, it’s a very beautiful backdrop. And both Elif and Caitlin are very talented science artists. And Elif wants to be a medical doctor. And Caitlin would like to work for the WHO or the CDC. And so that they’re – what is it required for that? Well, you need to communicate both to the patient and to the public about health. And so this project really allowed them to see that communication visually and verbally, that these ways are really important. So, yeah.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:19:33] It’s a great, great story. Well, I can tell our our viewers that it’s available on Amazon if you want to go check it out. It looks like a beautiful book. I am thinking I should get a copy for my children. I can’t believe we did it already. It’s – our time is up. We covered a lot, but there’s always another – sometimes people tell me after the fact, ‘I wish that was 17 more minutes because we have so much more to talk about,’ but which we touched on some great topics that we don’t normally spend time thinking about together here. So we appreciate you sharing your story and bringing this perspective to us and to, to the people who who follow us here on 17 Minutes of Science.
Dr. Ahna Skop (Guest): [00:20:11] All right. Thank you so much.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:20:13] Well, we’ll stay tuned. We’ll be watching what you’re up to. And we will also post some links to all of Ahna’s work and her websites, which are beautiful, and I encourage everybody to go there. So thank you very much, everyone. And we’ll see you next time.