About Lynn Fellman Artist for Science
Hey artist, why genomics?
Because I want to be in the thick of it. The Genomics Revolution. Did you know genomics is the transformational science of the twenty-first century?
We’re the first generation to have our whole-genome sequenced. The first humans to know our genetic variants — the bits that make us tick. We’re all Genome Explorers in the thick of it. On a journey for the fierce and fantastic science-in-us.
Your genome story. The convergence of big data + sequencing tech + digital-health devices + A.I. will take you on a hero’s journey. You and your DNA are protagonists in the unfolding story to understand the intricacies of your unique biology.
Science-smart citizens. Because a revolution can be risky, we gotta get genome-smart. To protect our data and share it wisely. Because we can engineer life, we gotta be science-savvy citizens to guide ethical and inclusive public policies. Future generations are counting on us to get it right.
Our species is on a hero’s journey. Genomic science will change us; it changed me. I morphed into a genome explorer and fierce advocate for science. Been exploring the science of our magnificent genomes with art and story ever since.
“The spark for the art” is the back story of my path to art and science.
The spark for the art.
— Written by Lynn Felman, artist for science
Lucky humans alive during a new era of scientific discovery. Who wouldn’t want to be part of it? I was Hermione Granger madly waving my hand, “Me! I want in!”
It was 2005, and I bought one of the first Non-Mag genetic ancestry tests. Using the swab, sending my sample, and receiving the report about my deep ancestry was fascinating. Little did I know, I was participating in something audacious — the human-wide adventure of the Genomics Revolution.
Once upon a time, we couldn’t participate. For more than 150 years, paleo-anthropologists examined ancient remains to decipher the puzzle of human evolution. Human fossil remains are rare; scattered across continents in small fragments, scientists feared there would never be enough fossils to assemble an accurate history of our species.
Rise of a new era. Then in 1977, genetic sequencing technology added pieces to the puzzle. Invented by British biochemist Fred Sanger, the new tech reads the A, T, C, and Gs on our chromosomes and mitochondria. Geneticists began to build a library of human genetic variation from the data to understand our biology. It was an audacious experiment that became the Human Genome Project (HGP) — and kicked off the Era of Genomics.
Bones and genes get together. While HGP research focused on basic science and biomedical questions, anthropologists wondered if sequencing DNA could answer questions that ancient bones could not — how did we evolve; where do we come from?
A 1987 scientific paper proved that it could. “Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and human evolution” was the first to analyze patterns in DNA to understand our early evolutionary history. The paper is considered a classic. Short and elegant, it’s easy to read. Check it out and take note of one of the authors, Mark Stoneking.
Mark and colleagues compared mtDNA from people who were alive and living in different parts of the world. They concluded that all humans had a common ancestor in Africa about 200,000 years ago. Their work and others that followed launched the field of molecular anthropology.
Genomics + Paleo-anthropology. What if DNA in old bones could be retrieved, sequenced, and deciphered? What stories they could tell! That’s what evolutionary geneticist Svante Paabo accomplished by developing methods to extract ancient DNA from paleontological remains.
Finding lost genomes. You can read about the scientific adventure in his autobiography, “Neanderthal Man: in Search of Lost Genomes.” Investigating ancient DNA and modern genomes plus fossil remains became the field of molecular paleo-anthropology. The mighty combo of genes and old bones and is building a much deeper understanding of our species.
Hello DTC testing. I was mesmerized by the unfolding discoveries and wondered if someday, somehow, I could be part of it. That’s why a curious venture, The Genographic Project, caught my attention. It was a unique collaboration between science and commerce — one of the first to offer direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic ancestry testing.
Participate in scientific discovery. In addition to sequencing populations for scientific research, they offered DNA kits to individuals. Not only would my data add to the knowledge of our species, but the project would send me a report about my own “deep” ancestry. I could be in the thick of it!
Catching the spark. It was the summer of 2005, and I ordered a Genographic DNA kit straight away. Weeks later, my results arrived. The written report describing my Northern European heritage was no surprise, for it synched with my family history. The graphic description, on the other hand, was simply astonishing.
A map of the world showed lines coming out of Africa, looping through the Levant, with few turning northward through Europe. One line ended close to the British Isles and was labeled “haplogroup H.”
A powerful story. The path depicted my maternal lineage. An ancient female story about women I would never know, yet connected by shared genetic variants I carry with me today. Variants in my DNA passed to me from mother-to-daughter via the mitochondrion in my genome.
This picture of shared genetic ancestry was something we had never seen before. It was powerful new information that was personal yet human-wide. It showed, in less than a thousand words, that we’re all connected. How could I communicate my feeling of wonder and awe?
Visualizing genetic ancestry. I dove into drawing and writing about genetic ancestry, weaving what I learned into my creative process. I wanted to show and tell our genome stories. The outcome from hundreds of sketches and many hours of research was a series of DNA portraits.
Take a look. Shown below is a self-portrait showing my maternal lineage, haplogroup “H” from mitochondrial DNA. As I developed the look and feel of the portraits, the work grew into a series that included a person’s face. You can see some of those portraits in the Genetic Ancestry Exhibit the University of Minnesota commissioned.
More than a picture. If you clicked and looked, you noticed that each portrait has a companion storyboard. It was an experiment — could art and story explain complex scientific concepts? Would the pairing elicit the same sense of wonder I felt when learning about my genome story?
The reaction of viewers at the exhibit was pretty cool. I watched as they studied a portrait. Then read the storyboard alongside it. Then look again to put art and story together. Animated conversations grew all around. I even overheard someone say, “ah-ha, I get it!”
Since then, I’ve experimented with new ways to pair art, story, and genomics. Animations that explained complex concepts were one approach; Ted-style talks with illustrated images were another. My current project is an interactive digital book about our Genome Stories.
Fierce and fantastic. When diving into the thick of it years ago, I couldn’t imagine I would morph into a genome explorer and fierce advocate for science. And how fantastically the Human Genome Project would impact everyday life.
What began three decades ago as an audacious experiment laid the foundation for gene therapies for precision medicine and rescued millions of us with the mRNA vaccines. This is the Genomics Era.
We’re all Genome Explorers. As genomic applications integrate more into everyday life, understanding our data becomes vital to our individual and human-wide health. We need to be genome-literate to guide ethical and just applications throughout society. Future generations are counting on us to get it right.
It’s why, some years ago, I went on a mission to show the beauty and value of our magnificent genomes. We’re all Genome Explorers now, and I’m happy to stay in the thick of it.
— Written by Lynn Felman, artist for science
Gracias and toda.
I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to work with amazing people and the universities, foundations, and institutes that support my work. As a Fulbright Senior Scholar to Israel, I collaborated with Dr. Dan Mishmar, an evolutionary geneticist at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, to develop an animated video about his research.
Another opportunity came from the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent). It was a National Science Foundation think tank for innovative, cross-disciplinary, evolutionary research at Duke University. I was granted a six-month residency to develop interactive media about genomics and human evolution.
During my residency at NESCent, I was part of a working group of scientists led by Dr. Nina Jablonski and Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. Our proposal to develop curricula for students to connect their genetic ancestry with their family history received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Hurrah!
The grants led to several successful, ongoing programs: the Genetics and Geneaology curricula for undergraduate students at Spelman College and Finding Your Roots summer camp for teens at Penn State University. I designed interactive media for the programs: a digital book for Spelman and a visualization tool for Penn State.
I’m a member of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), the Philosophical Society of Washington, D.C. (PSW), and the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG). In 2017, I became one of the founding members of the Genome Writers Guild (GWG) — a scientific organization building a better future for humanity through genome engineering and public education.
Materials and methods…
for an art piece begins with an idea sketched on pencil and paper, developed with ink and paint. Then I digitize sketches and paintings and manipulate them with digital tools.
When printing the finished image, I use 100% cotton archival paper and pigment inks for vibrant color and longevity.
— Written by Lynn Fellman, artist for science