Art + Science at LSI

Artists and scientists share a drive to understand, interpret and articulate the complex mysteries of life. Despite this commonality, the groups typically work in mutually exclusive communities. A number of people in the LSI work to bridge the gap between art and science, further illuminating human experience and raising awareness and understanding of basic science.

Recent projects 

<Windows> by Lia Min

In a new series of painting and textile sculpture, Lia Min once again explores new territory at the boundary of art and science.

As a research fellow jointly sponsored by the University of Michigan’s Life Sciences Institute and Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, Min divides her time between the studio and lab, exploring the interplay of science and art and examining Western and Eastern approaches to understanding and knowledge. 

Women in Science Exhbit

Ann Marie Macara from the Ye lab developed a comic book-inspired art exhibit to educate and excite young people about contributions to science made by women from a diversity of background. 


Flip Your Field, 2015

Image manipulation by Georgios Skiniotis


The invention of all sorts of imaging instruments, turned to the skies or to the cells that make up life on earth, have radically changed our understanding of the world and ourselves, allowing us to see what has never before been seen, and to comprehend the connections and disparities between our perceptions and reality.

Georgios Skiniotis, a faculty member in U-M’s Life Sciences Institute, uses a type of electron microscopy called cryo-EM to capture images of molecular complexes that are flashfrozen during the execution of biological processes. The work combines magnified projections of the molecules from different directions to create three-dimensional models of these cellular “machines” at different functional states. The resulting images are important to a basic understanding of life and the mechanisms that govern it—and they can be profoundly beautiful.

When UMMA invited him to curate an exhibition of three-dimensional objects from its collection as part of the Flip Your Field series, Skiniotis, who is also an associate professor of biological chemistry at the U-M Medical School, applied the same mix of analytical skills and inspiration to the project. The objects he chose—some sculptural, some utilitarian, some ancient or modern—are displayed in dialogue with enlarged two-dimensional silhouettes created from startling angles.

Skiniotis selected objects representing a range of geographical and historical origins, from Indian equestrian figures to dancing figurines by Rodin. He then photographed each object and manipulated it, sometimes slightly and sometimes beyond recognition, suggesting the sense of visual disorientation and personal perspective that can be part of the process of piecing an impression together.

The exhibition connects to his personal background as well as scientific work. “My origins are in a place where the bright Mediterranean sun casts strong shadows on the lands below it. This is a place of high visual contrast, where every object, living and not, is locked in an eternal dance with its distorted dark projection on a wall, on a rock, even on the surface of the sea,” Skiniotis said. “It’s unavoidably a place of emotional hyperbole, where impressions and feelings lose any connection to the observed object and instead become vividly attached to its stark outline—plain and flat, but almost invariably distorted, exaggerated, even comic or tragic.”

The interaction between the objects and their shadows draws attention to the nature of vision and perception and teases out the distinction between two and three dimensions. The exhibition, like Skiniotis’s work in the lab, raises questions about our standard means of perceiving objects around us—through color, contrast variation, and depth of field—as opposed to just dark outlines in the absence of perspective. What really is the connection between a two-dimensional shadow and the three-dimensional object associated with it? How many projections are needed for us to understand what we are looking at, and at what level of detail? What captures our attention, what leaves an impression, and what do we remember in the end?

Skiniotis’s treatment of these artifacts is occasionally pragmatic, ironic, comical, or conversational, and the exhibition, with its interplay of visualization and perception, aims to offer visitors a new and intriguing way to interact with the Museum’s collection. The UMMA Flip Your Field series asks noted University of Michigan faculty members to consider artwork outside their field of specialization in order to guest curate an exhibition using works from UMMA’s renowned collection. This series is generously supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Text courtesy of UMMA Magazine.


Through the disciplines of cell biology, structural biology, painting, music and dance, LSI faculty member Dan Klionsky and colleagues have been exploring new ways of understanding the cellular process of autophagy and developing works that help to explain this complex process to students and to the general public.

Dancers perform "How Autophagy Works," choreographed by Thurnau Professor of Dance Peter Sparling. The performance offered a dancer’s guide to cell biology that is both spoof and serious interdisciplinary research. Photo credit: Kirk Donaldson

Assisted by the LSI's Dr. Dan Klionsky, U-M Ruthven Professor of Life Sciences, medical illustrator David Goodsell and composer Wendy Lee, Sparling and dancers provide movement models or dioramas for the museum’s rotunda in the form of animated video projections, danced episodes and psychodramas freely interpreting the ongoing cellular process of autophagy, or “self-eating,” the body’s method of cleansing, recycling and defending against disease. Photo credit: Kirk Donaldson "How Autophagy Works" was part of a “WITHIN/BEYOND,” an evening of dances inspired by frontiers in scientific research by Ann Arbor Dance Works, in collaboration with the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History. Photo credit: Kirk Donaldson.

Art/Science Postdoctoral Fellowship

LSI and the Stamps School of Art & Design are jointly sponsoring a three-year post-doctoral fellowship in Art/Science. The first recipient of the fellowship, Lia Min, holds a joint undergraduate degree in biology and art from Michigan as well as a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard University. Her fellowship is documented here:

Self portrait by Lia Min

Collected Works

Together with U-M’s Museum of Art, the LSI has assembled a collection of artworks that speak to the art/science connection. Artists include Bernice Abbott, well known for her early photographs of scientific phenomena, as well as several faculty members from U-M’s Stamps School of Art & Design. In the one of the first cross-campus agreements of its kind, the collection is annexed and curated by the Museum.  

 “After Before” - David Mann, American. 2007. Hanging above the LSI reception desk is David Mann’s “After Before,” created to replace his 2003 painting “Before,” which was damaged in a flood. Mann’s early inspiration for his paintings comes from science, particularly images on a scanning electron microscope. Mann described his paintings as luminous abstractions that “suggest primordial phenomena and moments of organic transformation rife with potential. In [the] paintings, concise cellular forms percolate through, and often explode from, mysterious plasmatic surroundings.” 65 ¼” x 72 ¼” Oil and acrylic on canvas stretched over board.

 “Sonar” - David Mann, American. 2003. Mann’s “Sonar” is a complement to “After Before,” which hangs in LSI reception. Like “After Before,” it incorporates cellular forms, and there is a structural similarity between the two paintings. While “After Before” is meant to evoke a macrocosmic world, “Sonar” is microcosmic, echoing the same sense of organic transformation on a different scale.  65 ¼” x 72 ¼” Oil, alkyd, and acrylic on canvas stretched over board.