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Exhibitions and Events

Abstract beauty meets scientific truth

By Kara Gavin 

This week, the streets of downtown Ann Arbor will fill with hundreds of thousands of art lovers, seeking treasures at the hundreds of artists’ booths at the annual Ann Arbor Art Fair.

But at one booth down on East University Avenue, the art for sale isn’t just beautiful. It might also save lives.

All the images come directly from University of Michigan medical research laboratories, and were taken through microscopes or scanners by U-M scientists who use the latest techniques to study a broad range of diseases.

Each image takes the viewer deep inside stem cells, brain cells, and other unseen inner workings of our bodies. Most were created by scientists from the U-M Medical School, with some coming from at least five other areas of the university.

Every year, new images are chosen by a jury of artists and scientists  for their combination of abstract beauty and scientific truth.

The program is called U-M Bioartography, and it’s run by the Center for Organogenesis with participation from more than 200 faculty and staff in nearly every Medical School department and five other U-M schools and colleges.

At the Art Fair booth, the team will offer small and large prints of more than 40 colorful images, and notecards sold individually or in packs of 10. The booth is #112 of Ann Arbor’s South University Art Fair, located on E. University between Willard and S. University.

Prints and notecards are also available online year-round at, where shoppers can choose from more than 200 images. But online shoppers won’t have the authentic Art Fair experience of blazing heat, torrential rain and the risk of impalement by tourists carrying sharp-ended garden art.

Each Bioartography print or card comes with an evocative title and a description of the research that generated the image, as well as the name of the artist/scientist who created it.

Proceeds from the sale of the scientific art go to an important purpose: paying the way for young scientists to travel to conferences where they can present their findings and make important career connections.

“In a time of budget cuts for scientific grants, these dollars are needed more than ever,” says Deborah Gumucio, Ph.D., the cell biologist, professor and center founder who helped develop Bioartography. “More than 65 U-M graduate students and postdoctoral fellows have been awarded travel funds from the pool of revenues built up over the last seven years.

One of her favorite images this year is “He Wears His Heart on His Sleeve,” (above left) a colorful image of heart muscle cells taken in the lab of U-M neurologist and stem cell expert Jack Parent, M.D.

“The cells were created from stem cells. In the lab, the skin cells were first coaxed to behave like pluripotent stem cells (cells that can become any other cell of the body) and then they were induced to be heart cells; these cells actually contract rhythmically (like a heartbeat) in culture! Cells like this from people with certain diseases will actually beat abnormally in the culture. They’re beautiful, but they also show how stem cell science makes it possible to study a “disease in a dish” like never before,” she says.

Another image, called “Monet’s Garden,” (photo left) was created by Dawen Cai, Ph.D., a new faculty member in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology who has been a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Microbiology & Immunology. It shows mouse brain cells that have been genetically modified to appear in different colors – a technical achievement known as a “brainbow” that allows scientists to map the connections among brain cells and the changes as cells die or emerge.


Art meets science – and science meets art

Though the Bioartography project grew out of the Medical School, members of the Penny W. Stamps School of Art+Design have been involved in its success.

Bradley Smith, a professor and associate dean at the Stamps School who trained as an anatomist, serves as a juror for the annual selection of Bioartography images. His own creative work involves capturing and manipulating images of embryo development.

Over the past two years, his student Jessica Joy London spent time working and observing in Deborah Gumucio’s laboratory. Jessica’s paintings and sculptures, which draw inspiration from biology and the scientific method, earned her a master’s degree from the school this spring, and Gumucio served on the committee for her thesis defense. London’s work is on display at the Chelsea River Gallery from now until Aug. 17.

 Kara Gavin is a writer for the University of Michigan Health System.

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