About Lynn Fellman Artist for Science
Hey artist, why genomics?
Lucky humans, we are to be alive at the birth of 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!”
That was 2005, and I bought one of the first Non-Mag genetic ancestry test kits. Using the swab, sending my sample, and receiving the report about my deep ancestry was fascinating. It was early days of the Era of the Social Genome, and I was all-in.
I’ve been exploring the science of our magnificent genomes with art and story ever since. (For more about my path from art to science, scroll down to “The spark for the art” 3-min read.)
The spark for the art.
For more than 150 years, paleo-anthropologists examined ancient fossil bones to decipher the puzzle of human evolution. Human fossils are rare. Scattered across continents in small fragments, scientists feared there would never be enough to assemble an accurate history of our species.
Then in 1977, sequencing technology was developed that would add pieces to the puzzle. Invented by British biochemist Fred Sanger, the 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 — an audacious adventure called the Human Genome Project (HGP).
Bones + genes. While HGP geneticists focused on basic and biomedical science, anthropologists began to analyze DNA to answer questions that ancient bones could not.
The 1987 classic paper, “Mitochondrial DNA and human evolution,” was one of the first reports to address questions about early human migration. Check it out and meet one of the investigators whose work launched the field of molecular anthropology.
The more we know, the more complex and interwoven the study of human evolution, and it’s fascinating. Investigating ancient DNA and modern genomes plus fossil remains are building a much deeper understanding of our species
In the thick of it. I was mesmerized by the unfolding discoveries and wondered if someday, somehow, if I could be part of it. That’s why a curious venture, The Genographic Project, caught my attention.
It was an unusual collaboration between science and commerce. In addition to sequencing populations for scientific research, they offered DNA testing to individuals. Not only would my genetic data add to the knowledge of our species, but the project would also send me a report about my own genetic ancestry. I could be in the thick of it.
Catching the spark. That was 2005, and I ordered a Genographic DNA test kit straight away. My sequence report put me in a Northern European group. Knowing my family history, it wasn’t a surprise. But the report presented the information in a new and radical way.
It showed a path out of Africa that stretched across continents, depicting a journey of ancient people, mapping my genetic ancestry over time. This was something we had never seen before, and it was stunning. How could I communicate my feeling of wonder and awe?
I dove into drawing and writing about genetic ancestry, weaving what I learned into my creative process, looking for a way to visualize our genome stories. The outcome from hundreds of sketches and many hours of research was a series of DNA portraits. You can see some of the portraits on this page.
More than a picture. If you clicked and looked, you noticed that each portrait has a companion storyboard. It was my first experiment to write a narrative about the science in the artwork. Could the pairing elicit a sense of wonder from presenting the deeper story?
The reaction of viewers at the exhibit was pretty cool. I watched as they studied at the art, shifted to read the story, back to the art, and sometimes said, “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. And in-process, an interactive book about our Genome Stories.
Fierce and fantastic. When diving into drawing and writing in 2005, 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 “a great feat of exploration in history” laid the foundation for gene and immunotherapies that are slowly integrating into standard medical practice.
When science moves fast, it looks super-powered. And January 2020, we needed the Genomics Revolution’s superpowers to get our species through the pandemic.
First: sequencing of the coronavirus genome. Then: programming mRNA to deliver the vaccine to cripple the virus. It was an intense, high-speed process, accelerated by decades-long genomic research that came to the rescue.
We’re all Genome Explorers. It’s still the early days of the Genomics Revolution, and there’s so much more to know, explore. We’re the first generation to have our DNA data. The first to participate in whole-genome scientific research. That makes us — scientists and normals like you and me — pioneering 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 — hoping the pairing of art and story with science could lead the way. Written by Lynn Fellman, artist for science, May 2021.
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, May 2021.