An artistic endeavor: BioArtography blends art, science

July 17, 2018  //  FOUND IN: News,

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Looking into a microscope, Rafi Kohen, a graduate student in the U-M Medical School’s neuroscience program, knew he had something beautiful on his hands.

On the plate, mouse neurons glowed like vibrant purple stars, surrounded by a web of cyan blue cells called astrocytes. Struck by the unintentional artistry of the cells, he submitted the image for consideration for the BioArtography program.

Now in its 13th year, BioArtography celebrates the intricate and eye-catching imagery generated by researchers throughout U-M, from medicine to engineering to chemistry, by transforming scientific images into works of art.

Out of nearly 100 submissions, two of Kohen’s colorful and striking images of neurons resonated with the panel of judges, earning him a spot at this year’s Ann Arbor Art Fairs. There, he, along with the other winners, students, judges and volunteers will brave the summer heat later this week to sell prints of the images on canvas, paper and acrylic, and discuss the science behind them to whomever stops by.

It’s the teaching part that Kohen said he is looking forward to the most.

“I struggle with explaining my research even to other scientists in different fields. I have never tried communicating it to the public before,” said Kohen. “Explaining a picture that I generated to someone who doesn’t even know what a cell looks like, let alone a neuron, will be very challenging but very stimulating. It’s a big responsibility.”

‘Art’warming exhibits get others excited about science

Bringing science to the public in innovative ways is one of the primary reasons Deb Gumucio, the James Douglas Engel Collegiate Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology, began BioArtography in 2005.

She and the dedicated team of volunteers supporting the program work with the scientists to help them explain their work in layman’s terms, learn to be salespeople and hopefully motivate a new generation of researchers.

“There are a lot of people who come every year and are very passionate about supporting the program,” said Traci Carulli, administrative specialist and BioArtography coordinator. “People will come in with their kids and we’ll take them and show them the most beautiful image and explain what they are looking at. What I like most about the program is getting young kids excited about science.”

Plus, purchases of BioArt go to a worthy cause, helping to support grants to enable U-M graduate students and postdocs to travel to conferences to promote their research.

Ensuring artistic appeal

Every year, an enormous amount of work goes into judging, printing and selling the images at the Art Fair and online at

Preparations begin in February with a universitywide call for images. Then, jurors from the Stamps School of Art & Design as well as fellow scientists and volunteers select the images with the greatest aesthetic appeal for printing.

While the art fairs serve as the main event, the BioArtography team is constantly looking for new ways to promote the images, which will soon be on exhibit in the hospital as part of the Gifts of Art program and on display in Detroit Metro Airport’s McNamara Terminal.

They’ve also founded a Friends of BioArt membership, to help provide more financial support for students and to keep the valuable program going. Click here for more information.

Want to check out the incredible pieces of art for yourself? The Ann Arbor Art Fairs run from Thursday, July 19 to Sunday, July 22. BioArtography is located on E. University Ave in booth No. 640.