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Happigenetics – a marriage of art and science


Happigenetics mixes science with art to explore our perceptions of genetics and genomic research. ICR research fellow Martina Mijuskovic explains what the project means to her.

Posted on 26 November, 2015 by Martina Mijuskovic

It all started for me in Spring 2013 when I got a call from a friend of mine, John LaCava, a research associate at Rockefeller University. He asked me to join him in a “science meets arts project” he was co-organising during the Federation of European Biochemical Societies conference in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Being a lover of both disciplines, I could hardly say no.

I soon found myself spending evenings in an abandoned building that the Saint Petersburg multimedia band Coaxil (one of our collaborators on the project) used for rehearsals. The result of this experiment was a rather unusual event – a multimedia ‘play’ loosely based on the life of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, one of the first people to see cells using a microscope. It was set in a beautiful gallery of the ERARTA contemporary arts museum and we named it ‘Happigenetics Extravaganza’.

My contribution to the project was to create visual art to capture our project’s keywords: ‘communication’, ‘mystical aesthetics’ and ‘natural experimentation’ – and I started by bringing my camera into the lab. To my delight, my colleagues were more than happy to assist. Posing with a bucket of steaming dry ice and pouring colourful solutions in and out of Falcon tubes for the photoshoot resulted in this webdesign and the official poster for the event.

In Saint Petersburg, I reconnected with a fellow Croatian, Professor Ivan Dikic, now a director of the Institute of Biochemistry II at Goethe University, Frankfurt. I told him about the event we were organising and it sparked his curiosity. A few months later, he called me up with a suggestion: “Why don’t we organise a science-meets-arts workshop in Croatia?”

This was the series of chance events that led to this summer’s workshop entitled ‘Genomics for Peace’.

The word ‘Happigenetics’ was coined by Alexander Kagansky and his colleagues when they started an initiative for public engagement at Edinburgh schools in 2010. In the words of Kagansky, who does epigenetic research: “Happigenetics is meant to convey a feeling of optimism and show the public that genetics – and science in general – doesn’t need to be boring or threatening.”

Today, Happigenetics is a growing community of professionals in various fields of social and natural sciences, arts, design and more, who are interested in establishing a mutual dialogue and overcoming artificial barriers between these disciplines.

As a bioinformatics officer at The Institute of Cancer Research, I do genome research every day, with a particular focus on the epidemiology of prostate cancer. Being here for over a year now, I’m thrilled with the opportunity not only to contribute to the fight against human disease, but also to meet clinical fellows, research nurses and genetic counsellors engaged with real patients every day. This gives me a stronger sense of purpose but also responsibility.

Genomics (and bioinformatics) exploded as a field of study only several years ago with the advent of next-generation sequencing technologies. It is now rapidly changing our understanding of human biology and disease, and this is demonstrated nowhere better than in the field of cancer. However, the public still knows very little about these developments let alone the power of new genome editing technologies such as CRISPR-Cas9, which our team, among many others around the world, started using recently.

So, when I suggested to Kagansky, a native Russian, to make genomics the central theme of this summer’s Happigentics workshop, he was excited – and added: “And let’s use it to send the message of peace!”

We put together an international, interdisciplinary team of natural and social scientists, visual artists, designers and actors, and started a dialogue. The first task was educating the artists, some of whom had not learnt about science since their school days. We pulled up slides, documentaries and drew DNA structures, attempting to explain what genome editing actually is, and its potentially powerful impacts on science and society. This included discussions about the ethics of such a technology, and where we should draw the limits.

One of the products of this workshop, inspired by our discussions about CRISPR-Cas9 technology, is the video named ‘Four Dolls’, created in collaboration with the motion designer Fabio Fodaro. Another collaborative project initiated at the workshop resulted from discussions about national and ethnic conflicts and boundaries. We wanted to explore the ideas around the overwhelming genetic and molecular similarity between all races and nationalities, despite the seemingly constant focus on our differences.

A team including Alex Dueben, who teaches peace studies at Jilin University in China, Nela Lucic, an Italian-Bosnian actress, and Svetlana Kalinicheva, a Russian-Ukranian painter, went to the streets of Brela, Croatia, to talk to people about genomics. They drew their portraits and made microscopic images of their hair, together with some basic information on their ethnic origin. We were pleasantly surprised how well the public reacted and how many wanted to contribute. We are currently in the final stages of completing this project and we have plans to exhibit to the public.

Happigenetics has been a thrilling journey for me so far and I hope more opportunities will arise to bring scientists and artists together for the ultimate aim of engaging the public in a different and entertaining way. We hope that this will contribute to facilitating informed discussions with the public about science, its advancements and its potential contribution to how we all live our lives.

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