3Q: Louise Hughes
Biologist Louise Hughes heads the bio-imaging unit at Oxford Brookes University in the UK. Also a multimedia artist, she makes labwork-inspired jewellery — including gold pieces based on structures such as the hepatitis virus. Here she talks electron microscopy, centrioles and chromosome earrings.
How do you see the relationship of scientific images and art?
I have always considered microscopy images and data to be beautiful. During my master’s degree in biological electron microscopy, I learned how to take images using negative plates and film — the use of modern digital cameras in an electron microscope is relatively recent. I see electron microscopy as another form of photography, just using a rather complicated camera. Art and science are both ways of looking at the world. How we use images and produce the graphics that explain our interpretation of the information we receive differs between the two disciplines, but there is a process that is similar.
But there are differences in how you approach making art and science imaging?
Both, for me, require clarity and I take a lot of care to ensure that the images or final pieces accurately convey the message I am attempting to get across. My approach to art is very emotional. It is therapeutic, a form of personal meditation. Science, of course, is generally approached at a far more objective level. There are specific questions that I attempt to address using microscopy and this often links into the functionality of the biological structures I am observing, including cells, organelles, molecules and viruses. It is not enough to simply capture descriptive data; it must be informative, focused on the research issue and is often published in collaboration with other forms of evidence — biochemistry, genetics or molecular biology, for example.
You make 3D objects based on microscopic images for research and outreach, and also as jewellery?
I use a combination of techniques, including microscopy, digital modelling and 3D printing, and make adjustments until I have created the item I want. For outreach I generally make large plastic printed models, as close a replica of the 3D data as I can manage. For jewellery, I print the model in wax using a 3D printer (for the ‘lost wax’ casting method), which ensures a high level of detail. At the moment my favourite metal to work with is bronze: I feel the colour and weight create really striking items. I use microscopic structures in jewellery because they are aesthetically satisfying, and also universally human: at the cellular/organelle level there is no difference in race, sexual orientation, religion, country, wealth. We all have the same cellular components. Viruses can infect any one of us. My personal favourites are centrioles and axonemes — micro-tube structures found in cells. These beautiful, fascinating, endlessly complex biological structures apply across a wide range of organisms and kingdoms. I am now expanding the range to incorporate structures such as organelles and macromolecules. My awe at this amazing miniature architecture is not going to diminish any time soon.
Interview by Daniel Cressey, a reporter for Nature in London. He tweets at @DPCressey.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.