Music, dance, a fruit puree sculpture and now a DNA portrait are all products of a program in which high school students create art from science. Gary Cass, senior technician in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, runs The Scientific Creativity Initiative (SCI) in his own out-of-work time at three high schools in Perth.
One of his students, 15-year-old Sasha Whittle from St Mary's Anglican Girls' School, has ‘painted' a portrait, using DNA, of Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who helped to discover the structure of the molecule.
It is believed to be the world's first picture using DNA as the medium.
And Kings College in London, where Rosalind Franklin did her ground-breaking work, wants to hang the small portrait in its Franklin-Wilkins building, named after Rosalind and Maurice Wilkins, a colleague who also worked with Watson and Crick, the pair credited with discovering the double helix structure of the DNA molecule.
Gary is thrilled with this recognition of Sasha's work, and the approval of Rosalind Franklin's descendants.
"I believe that the collaborations between sciences and arts will produce the most extraordinary and visionary outcomes in the future," he said.
Gary has created his own art from science, developing the ‘wine dress' (UWAnews, 25 August 2008), and converting DNA code into musical code. He shares his enthusiasm with like-minded students at Shenton College, St Mary's and, most recently, St Stephen's School.
Along with Shenton College teachers, Dana Perks and Chloe Britton, he set up the Abiogenesis program within the SCI 18 months ago. Abiogenesis is the theory of and research into how life began on Earth: how the inorganic became organic.
The program guides students towards producing a creative piece, exhibiting their scientific and artistic interpretation of abiogenesis. Their exhibition was opened by WA's Chief Scientist and UWA Professor Lyn Beazley.
The Shenton students' work has included the writing and playing of two pieces of music to compare the DNA of humans with that of a bacterium.
Four female students created and performed a crystal dance that symbolised the fire and ice fight for dominance over the earth.
The maker of a sculpture of the DNA molecule explained that "if life is from DNA and DNA is essentially from food, isn't life literally just peaches and cream?" and created a figurine using peach puree.
Shenton College's Deputy Principal, Chris Hill said the SCI's abiogenesis program had been a magnificent opportunity to support cross-curricular work in the senior years. "It's important to recognise that creativity is worthwhile across the disciplines," he said.
Sasha Whittle's portrait recognises the contribution of Rosalind Franklin to the decoding of the structure and understanding of the DNA molecule.
"Rosalind was a scientist racing in an undeclared race," Sasha said. "She received little credit during her life. She should have won the Nobel Prize but she died at the age of 38 and, of course, the Prize is never awarded posthumously."
Sasha said she joined the after-school program because of her love for both science and art. "One day I was talking to Gary about a scientist who had drawn a portrait of a cow she had loved. The cow had died and the carcass was burnt and she used the resulting charcoal to draw the picture.
"We had been extracting DNA and I started thinking about making a picture with it. We had DNA from salmon and I had the idea to honour Rosalind Franklin," she said.
She worked on drawing the portrait in Gary's class then took home the fibrous salmon DNA and completed the picture over two nights.
"It took patience, time and a pair of tweezers," said Sasha, who is hoping she can include DNA pictures in her school art folio.
While Sasha is now planning to paint pictures of trees and grass from their respective DNA, Gary is hoping to arrange a trip to London for Sasha to hand over her portrait.
Published in UWA News, 5 September 2011