Thomas Deerinck isn't your typical artiste.
"First and foremost, I am a microscopist and research scientist," he says. "But if you would call a nature photographer an artist, then I'll proudly accept the title."
Trained in electron microscopy, Deerinck has spent the last 25 years developing cutting-edge, high-resolution biological imagery at the University of California, San Diego's National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research.
This Friday, Deerinck adds the title of artist to his lauded résumé as he takes part in the fourth annual Art of Systems Biology and Nanoscience alongside Drew Berry, a biomedical animator at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia.
Organized by the University of New Mexico Cancer Center and Los Alamos National Laboratory, the two-day event also includes symposiums, public lectures and a kid-friendly, interactive experiment zone.
The art exhibit part features spectacular, vivid photo micrographs and scientific illustrations by Deerinck, as well as vivid animation from Berry, who produced the video for Björk's "Biophilia: Hollow."
"Doing microphotography of nature requires many of the same skills as does conventional photography," Deerinck tells SFR. "Microscopy is meant to capture information in the subject and relay it to the observer in a meaningful way."
The merging of the scientific with the artistic, Deerinck says, results from the influence of his wife Karla, an abstract impressionist painter. It was through her, he says, that his work became polished in an "artistic and impactful matter."
Deerinck hopes his endeavor pushes spectators to reevaluate their concept of beauty.
"The microscopic world all around us is just as beautiful as the rest of nature, but goes mostly unappreciated because it is normally out of sight," he explains. "As hard as it is to believe, there are vistas just as breathtakingly beautiful as Yosemite or Taos that are no larger than a grain of sand; you just need to know where to look."
The brain, the scientist points out, is among the best organs on which to train a microscope. He calls it “one of the most elegant and complex structures in the known universe.”
“You don’t have to look very far in the brain with a microscope to find incredible beauty,” Deerinck, who has co-authored more than 150 scientific articles, says.
For Dr. Janet Oliver, lead event organizer and regents’ professor of pathology at UNM, Art of Systems pulls double duty as an outreach program of sorts.
“We scientists see beautiful things in our microscopes every day,” she says. “We’d like to share them with people, partly because they’re beautiful, and partly to make people interested in science through these images.”
“People will see some pretty amazing things,” Deerinck advances. “They’ll see micrographs recorded using some of the most sophisticated microscopes in the world, including a one-of-a-kind, million-dollar laser microscope that shines a quantum pulse of photons on a specimen 100 million times a second to reveal the amazing structure deep inside cells and tissues.”
If you’ve made it this far, it’s clear that all expectations for cowboys and horses should be left at the door.
Deerinck’s subjects run the gamut from genetically mutated flies that age prematurely; to HIV particles “as large as golf balls” attacking a cell; and the cancer cells of Henrietta Lacks, which were cultured before her death in 1951 to create an “immortal” cell line for biomedical research that’s still used today.
The partnership between Deerinck—who Oliver says, “has the soul of an artist”—and visionary Berry gives attendees a unique opportunity to admire the latest nano-imagery can offer, as well as what it could soon evolve to.
“The work I am presenting is what the current state-of-the-art microscopes allow us to see,” Deerinck says.
“Drew Berry’s imagery shows us what may be possible 50 to 100 years from now.”
Friday, March 29 and Saturday, March 30. Free.