The Trimer Transformed

A sculptor fixes her gaze on HIV vaccine research for an exhibit called The Art of Saving a Life, one of many examples of how contemporary art is engaging with science

By Michael Dumiak

Robin Shattock had never been asked quite this way about his work until last summer, when the Imperial College molecular biologist, HIV vaccine researcher, and mucosal infection and immunity expert found himself on the phone with Katharine Dowson, a sculptor based in south London. Shattock was explaining to her the intricacies of the structure of HIV’s shadowy envelope protein.

“It was challenging to think about how to communicate the complexity of the science in a visually appealing way,” Shattock recalls. “We now have these exquisite, finely detailed structural models of the [HIV] envelope protein. It’s a beautiful looking structure,” he says. “We were trying to give some sort of artistic representation to the complexity but also the beauty of the problem we are trying to solve.” The problem Shattock and scores of other researchers are working on is developing vaccine candidates that can induce antibodies which can attack and eliminate HIV.

“We know where these broadly neutralizing antibodies interact with this [HIV Envelope] structure. What we don’t know is how to present that to the immune system in order to reliably induce a broadly neutralizing response,” Shattock says.

Dowson, who first started blowing glass sculptures of stomach linings in a rented Paris studio some 25 years ago, uses glass and light as her primary media in creating works that often draw on science for inspiration and increasingly rely on collaboration with researchers. Her works include a laser etching inside a glass brick of a cousin’s cerebral venous malformation and a 3D model of Dowson’s own brain.

Together, she and Shattock plotted the steps that led Dowson to casting A Window to the Future of an HIV Vaccine, a work consisting of eight separate scored, polished crystal blocks that when placed against one another in a certain way reveal the ephemeral shape of the trimeric HIV envelope protein, which was etched by laser inside. The lethal virus seems to be a floating cotton wisp. The sculpture is not displayed in order. One block placed to the side symbolizes the as-yet-unsolved puzzle of developing a vaccine against HIV.


Dowson’s work became one of the standout pieces of a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-sponsored campaign called The Art of Saving a Life, which invited artists to tell stories about vaccination. Saving a Life includes conceptual and decorative work, text, film, music, and illustrative and abstract art; 38 pieces in all. A brief exhibition of these pieces accompanied a donor’s conference held in Berlin this January for Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, an organization that aims to distribute vaccines to children in the poorest countries of the world.

To create A Window to the Future of an HIV Vaccine, Dowson met Shattock’s team at the red-bricked St. Mary’s Hospital campus of Imperial College in London. The arches and columns and Victorian lobby give way to a modern research lab where Dowson consulted with Shattock and his team, pored over the recent scientific literature, and above all observed the HIV protein structures that team members were showing her on screens around the lab. Shattock’s team contacted Andrew Ward and Ian Wilson at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla. The two had published the molecular crystal structure of an HIV trimer structure, dubbed BG 505 SOSIP.664, in complex with a neutralizing antibody. For researchers, solving this structure allows detailed modeling of the trimer and maMauro-Gummi-02pping of the sites on this structure that remain constant — and are therefore most vulnerable to neutralizing antibodies. It’s all done in the hope that this information will aid in the design of new vaccine candidates able to present these sites in a manner that can preferentially elicit broadly neutralizing antibodies. It was a dazzling array of visual information and complexity for Dowson to absorb. “You’ve got to edit it down and pare it down until you get the absolute essence. You have to grapple to make it simple,” she recalls.

HIV is anything but simple. Dowson wanted to capture the many facets of the virus in her work. “It’s a fragile virus in many ways, still so robust and so difficult. It’s very evil, yet it’s a beautiful-looking thing as well.” Artists engaging with science-related material, or with scientists themselves, often wrestle with how illustrative or abstract their work should be. For Dowson, and herWindow to the Future of an HIV Vaccine, the trimer was the perfect vessel for creating an inspired sculpture representing broader themes. By dividing her sculpture into eight pieces and using highly polished material that creates a play of reflection and transparency, she’s made what could be a straightforward illustration into a shimmering, elusive, and sometimes sinister object. 

Other pieces from The Art of Saving a Life directly reference scientists and health workers, such as Fatoumata Diabaté’s Ebola Trials photographic essay, Mauro Peruchetti’s gummi-like Vaccine as a Love Serum resin figures (see image, right), and Vik Muniz’s Flowers—The Beauty of Vaccines (see image, below). Muniz’s work is a digitally colored, wall-sized print of liver cells infected with vaccinia virus (the virus used to inoculate against smallpox). It was done in collaboration with Tal Danino, a synthetic biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 


Exploration of the relationship between science and art goes back to Da Vinci and Darwin. But Arthur I. Miller argues that a new kind of art is now emerging. His recent book Colliding Worlds illustrates the evolving relationship between science and art over the course of 80 interviews—including one with Dowson. “The artists I considered for my book are artists whose work can reflect back on science. These are artists who collaborate with scientists; artists who know a lot of science, who are willing to read the conceptual part of science.”

Miller, a Bronx native with a physics doctorate from MIT, founded the University College of London’s department of science and technology studies. His interest in art and science was first sparked by attending 9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering in 1966, which featured Billy Klüver of Bell Labs and Robert Rauschenberg. He himself collaborated with artist Fiorella Lavado in the 2010 Berlin exhibit Weaving the Universe: from Atoms to Stars.

In his book, Miller draws connections between the emergence of Cubism and the physics of Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. Cubism is a highly influential break in 20th-century art, strongly associated with Pablo Picasso, which prized a radical change in technique and the use of geometry to present multiple simultaneous perspectives of a single form. Miller argues that the insights leading to some of these scientists’ most groundbreaking work can be attributed to their ability to use imagery, thought experiments, and abstractions to refine and reimagine their experimental equations.

Einstein himself said the greatest scientists are artists as well. Miller points out that Neils Bohr read an influential book on cubist theory, Du Cubisme, which inspired the physicist to imagine an electron as both a particle and a wave. The resolved form depends on when and from what perspective it is viewed.

The relationship works the other way too. Scientific research is providing a well of inspiration for artists. London gallerist Robert Devcic cultivates this at his hub for art and science, GV Art. The gallery features several artists who collaborate with science as part of their everyday practice, including David Marron, who’s also a paramedic, and Helen Pynor, who was once an aspiring molecular biologist. Dowson’s brain scan and heart sculpture is now displayed in the GV Art window.

Devcic’s love of science leads back to his boyhood love of fossils; his idea of a good collaboration is when researchers and artists go on a creative journey, getting to know one another without a pre-determined outcome. In his view, this is preferable to work that places the artist in position of being a transcriber. Miller and Devcic both touch on what is a sometimes sore nerve: Miller, who says sometimes all the attention goes to the art and not to the science that helped bring it into being, and Devcic, who says art should not be merely illustrating science. “Our artists investigate and pursue knowledge through the sciences with meaningful collaborations,” Devcic says, “What we do not do is encourage our artists to be used by science organizations as a tool for communicating.”

The UK-based Wellcome Trust is familiar with this tension, given its nearly 20 years of formal promotion of arts and science collaboration. In 1996 the Wellcome Trust launched SciArt, a decade-long grants program that jointly supported scientists and artists on projects such as Helen Storey’s Primitive Streak, a fashion and design collection illustrating the first 1,000 hours of life, and the painter Mark Quinn’s Molecular Gaze, a portrait of geneticist John Sulston using DNA extracted from Sulston’s semen and grown in agar.

The SciArt initiative began with the idea that the collaboration would spur new data as part of the project, but this proved hard to maintain. The SciArt program therefore wound down in favor of art awards with a broader remit, says David Cahill Roots, a former theater producer and now senior arts adviser at Wellcome.

Wellcome has also supported many artists by sponsoring shows and, as with Bristol-based artist Luke Jerram, purchasing work for the trust’s growing collection. Jerram brings a unique perspective as a colorblind artist who does not formally collaborate with scientists, though he does closely consult with them. He works with scientific glassblowers to produce large-scale glass replicas of pathogens, including several of HIV and of the H5N1 strain of the influenza virus. The sculptures are close representations of viruses, made millions of times larger. Given Jerram’s (colorblind) view, however, these sculptures are created of clear glass without the tint or dye often given to scientific illustrations.



Wellcome is not the only science grant funder with an artistic bent, and is far from alone as a scientific institution promoting collaboration with the art world—not just for raising public awareness of science, but because many researchers say they see a benefit in working with artists. Wellcome’s peers include ChamPynor Clancy-Pig-Heart-02palimaud Neuroscience in Lisbon, the University of Western Australia’s SymboticA lab (from where Devcic first heard of Helen Pynor), and the Max Planck Society in Germany. Devcic is currently working on developing a project along with fellow residents of The Hub, a new dedicated space and resource for interdisciplinary projects exploring health and medicine. The project is drawing on the resources of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.

Another Max Planck Institute, the Dresden-based Institute for Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, is one of the Planck organizations in art and multimedia; it is hosting Pynor, the former biologist. She is collaborating with molecular biologist Jochen Rink, whose group works with planarian flatworms and pluripotent stem cells to study tissue formation and regeneration. Rink and Pynor’s work represents a deeper than normal collaboration—Pynor is spending many lab hours culturing cells to be used in the project. Together, the artist and scientists are extracting living fibroblast cells from chicken meat from the supermarket—and if that is successful, to see whether they can convert those into lines of living stem cells. Pynor will later use the project as part of a conceptual artwork about the permeable lines between life and death.

It’s Rink’s first time working with an artist. He’s getting the kind of experience Dresden’s Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology finds valuable. “It’s great to have discussions comparing the scientific method to the artistic method,” he says. “I am doing this for my own personal curiosity. I like working with Helen simply because of the different frame of thought. It is stimulating, and I am curious to see how Helen will turn a scientific result into a piece of art.”

Michael Dumiak reports on global science, technology, and public health and is based in Berlin.