22 September 2011

Combining art and science: Karmella Haynes interview

Back in June, Jonathan Eisen shared a poster unlike any I had ever seen before: a completely painted work of art.

I featured it here, and finally have a follow-up with the scientist behind it, Dr. Karmella Haynes.

Q: The obvious first question is, what gave you the idea to paint your conference poster? I know you’re an artist, but that’s still a fairly significant jump between the disciplines.

A: I've been painting and drawing since I was a kid; I keep a collection of my pieces on display at www.karmellahaynes.com. (“Traveling without moving” from that site pictured at right - ZF) Before I was certain that I wanted to be a scientist, I had already been doing some pretty advanced portraiture in oil and in acrylic. I continued to paint while in grad school, but only when I could find time. Today, I find outlets for artistic expression through my science. For instance, I design my own cover art entries. One was accepted by the Journal of Biological Chemistry (August 5 issue, “Synthetic reversal of epigenetic silencing,” shown below. - ZF)

Q: Were you nervous to have a poster that was so different from other conference posters?

A: Maybe a little. Some things that were going on in my career at the time emboldened me to try a painted poster. Although I was a postdoc in the Silver lab, I had acquired a position as a tenure-track professor (at Arizona State University) so I felt more independent. Also, the data on the poster had all been generated by me, so I didn’t have to get approval from a long list of co-authors. Pam (my P.I.) had always been supportive of my art and she’s a strong proponent of clever and bold ideas in general. Finally, I felt that a synthetic biology conference was the right place for it, since so many members of the syn bio community are iconoclasts, of sorts, and have an appreciation for creativity and aesthetics.

Q: Could you talk a bit about the process of making this particular poster? In particular, paint would not be a medium that I would have thought of as suitable for precise scientific data, like means with error bars. How did you do the graphs?

A:  I had an unused 3' × 4' canvas laying around and a set of nice acrylic paint I had not touched in a while (science had kept me pretty busy). I created a lot of sketches to get the layout just right. I decided to go with a sort of surrealist still life of single cells (inspired by a Chihuly exhibit in Boston) and a clear petri dish, where some cells had red nuclei, so that it would be relevant to the data. For the data, the challenge was to represent the science well without relying too much on text, just like any digital poster, but even more so for the painting. I sketched the graphs and diagrams with pencil and a ruler, trying to get the sizes of everything as accurate as possible. What a lot of people don’t appreciate is the fact that graphs that were published in high profile journals were hand drawn by technical artists. But, in order to accurately present my data (it was a science conference after all), I made mini-posters on 8.5" × 11" paper as handouts.

Q: We know Jonathan Eisen loved the poster; how was the response from other attendees?

A:  It got a lot of double takes and plenty of smiles and compliments. Many commented that it was the first time they had ever seen anything like it. It was very well received. I printed 50 handouts and ran out long before the poster session was over.

Q. Have you done more traditional posters, using illustration software? If so, what do you use?

A:  Yes, up until that point, for all 12 years I had been doing research it was nothing but printed posters; from “modular” poster board-backed panels hung by thumb tacks, to the large single sheet print-outs. I’ve used Photoshop and PowerPoint and/or a combination of both. I can’t wait until digital display screens get inexpensive enough to furnish every presenter with a monitor for showing digital posters with interactive animations. That could definitely end up in catastrophe, encouraging common PowerPoint offenses, but the best digital posters would help to set a good standard.

Q: How important is the aesthetic, the artistic quality, of a scientific poster?

A:  Art can do many things: please, provoke, challenge, and communicate to name a few. The most appropriate use for art in science posters is to communicate efficiently. When the symbols are consistent, the colors “logical” (e.g., complimentary colors showing opposing components of a system), the layout uncluttered with a logical flow, etc., the viewer is satisfied both intellectually and emotionally. I think science posters should strive to become technically beautiful (I also love the beauty in less rigid things, but that’s a different category).

Q: What advice do you have for scientists to make their posters more beautiful?

A:  Pick a standard visual language and stick with it (e.g., what shapes to use for proteins, cells, test subjects, etc.); don’t be afraid of abstraction; use complementary contrasting colors, not clashing colors (there’s a difference); look to commercial biotech posters for inspiration; if you have microscopy, show it off!

Thanks for the opportunity to share my poster-painting experience with your readers.

Thanks, Karmella, for taking the time to answer some questions!

Related posts

True artwork: the painted poster

External links

Karmella Haynes at Arizona State University
Karmella Haynes on Google+

Tree of Life blog:

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