A scientist trapped in an artist's body

Ahna Skop masterfully balances research and creativity

Margaret Guthrie
Sep 4, 2008
"Look at all these white walls with nothing on them," cell biologist linkurl:Ahna Skop;http://www.genetics.wisc.edu/faculty/profile.php?id=160 says with a sweeping gesture as she leads the way to one of the lobbies in the BioGenetics building on the University of Wisconsin, Madison campus. Clearly she regards empty white walls as opportunities. We are on our way to see an installation of cell-based art hanging very near linkurl:her lab;http://skoplab.weebly.com/ in the institution. Skop studies linkurl:cytokinesis;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/21188/ and cell cycle linkurl:proteomics,;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/52886/ and composes striking micrographs of her research subjects. linkurl:Migrating chromosomes;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/14831/ and linkurl:worm gonads;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/22792/ become works of art in Skop's hands. "I am dyslexic, I learn better visually so it's really natural that I would notice the beauty in what I am studying," Skop says.In some ways, Skop's predisposition to aestheticism is unsurprising. She spent her childhood immersed in art. Her father is an internationally known ceramicist, who conducted an art school in their home. Her...
th a sweeping gesture as she leads the way to one of the lobbies in the BioGenetics building on the University of Wisconsin, Madison campus. Clearly she regards empty white walls as opportunities. We are on our way to see an installation of cell-based art hanging very near linkurl:her lab;http://skoplab.weebly.com/ in the institution. Skop studies linkurl:cytokinesis;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/21188/ and cell cycle linkurl:proteomics,;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/52886/ and composes striking micrographs of her research subjects. linkurl:Migrating chromosomes;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/14831/ and linkurl:worm gonads;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/22792/ become works of art in Skop's hands. "I am dyslexic, I learn better visually so it's really natural that I would notice the beauty in what I am studying," Skop says.In some ways, Skop's predisposition to aestheticism is unsurprising. She spent her childhood immersed in art. Her father is an internationally known ceramicist, who conducted an art school in their home. Her mother is a high school art teacher lauded by the state of Kentucky for bringing art programs to rural areas. Her three siblings are all working artists. "I am definitely the oddball in my family," Skop says with a grin.

Slideshow: Skop's Scientific Art

Slideshow: Skop's Scientific Art

So how did she get involved in science? It turns out that the Skop family dabbled in more than just art. "My father and mother loved science and we always watched PBS shows together (like linkurl:NOVA),";http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ Skop explains. She says that her father also taught college-level linkurl:anatomy;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/14101/ classes and worked as a medical illustrator and that her mother loved to dissect animals and make the images of their cross sections into jewelry. "Both were really fascinated by the beauty of science," Skop says. "I loved science but I was stuck genetically in an artist's body. I couldn't escape so I made the best of it and became a developmental cell biologist."As a PhD student at UW-Madison, with her program director's full approval, Skop organized an art exhibition at a biannual linkurl:International __C. elegans__ Meeting.;http://www.wormbase.org/forums/index.php?topic=561.0 Her graduate advisor, linkurl:John White,;http://www.genetics.wisc.edu/faculty/profile.php?id=153 says the creative role came naturally to Skop. "She didn't need any encouragement at all and now it's become a major feature of the meetings," he says. 'She was interesting, a very visual student."As a result of that first __C. elegans__ art exhibition, Skop "became the go-to girl for logos," she remembers. "Whenever someone wanted a logo for a meeting or a conference they would come to me and I would draw something from a slide." (To see examples, click linkurl:here.);http://www.cafepress.com/celegansThe exhibitions she set up became a fixture at the meetings, with the number of submissions growing each year. High school students have been especially big fans of the exhibitions, and Skop says she hopes that they will attract more students to science.Her concern for the next generation of scientists led Skop, who is part Cherokee on her mother's side, to join linkurl:SACNAS,;http://www.sacnas.org/ the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science. She is also currently serving on the linkurl:Wisconsin Task Force for Art & Creativity in Education,;http://arts.state.wi.us/static/pr/pr040208.htm whose mission is to draft legislation that instills creativity in curricula from kindergarten through post-secondary education.Skop's creativity doesn't end with designing logos for meetings, encouraging arts in education, or creating artwork from microscopy. She also fantasizes about using her culinary talents to fund her research. "I love to cook, baking especially," Skop says. "Sometimes I think it would be easier to have a bake sale to raise money for my lab than to write a grant." A talented baker, Skop even baked and decorated her own wedding cake. Skop currently mentors four graduate students, one lab technician, and somewhere between 3-5 undergrads - she just lost one who is a member of Wisconsin's renowned linkurl:marching band;http://www.badgerband.com/ and decided to major in music. Raising research funds by selling cupcakes might seem farfetched, but to Skop, winner of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2007, nothing seems impossible. Skop leads me to the lobby of the BioGenetics building, and the walls are lined with vibrant micrographs and line drawings of the cell processes that she and her students study in the lab. Enlarged many times and mounted on foam board, the art represents a window into the scientist's twin passions: conducting research and sharing the beauty of science.

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