Researcher uses art to share science with a broad audience
Art is an essential part of science. And for Nick Navin, Ph.D., it’s a succinct way to share important scientific discoveries.
“Art is how we communicate information, how we visualize data,” says Navin, chair of Systems Biology.
Back when he was a graduate student in Molecular Genetics at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Stony Brook University, Navin developed some of the first single-cell sequencing methods.
“Breast cancer has always been an area of interest for me,” he says. “I developed some of those early methods because I wanted to understand diversity and heterogeneity within tumor cell populations in the breast. It ended up becoming a technology that’s now very widely used, with a huge commercial market. Before that, all methods were based on bulk sequencing, which means you look at the whole tissue at once and you don’t understand the diversity of the cell types that are present and the different clones of tumor cells.”
Navin’s art, which is always computer-generated, reflects his work. He creates abstract images to accompany news stories, talks, lectures and articles about his research. Occasionally, his art will appear on the cover of a journal.
“I like to sketch things out first,” he says. “On my whiteboard, you’ll see pictures I’m going to draw. Then I go to the computer. I’ll try out a million different things until I find something that works. Often, I have a student or postdoc in the lab with good artistic skills and we bounce ideas back and forth.”
Using single-cell sequencing technologies to plot scientific data
Since joining the MD Anderson faculty in 2011, Navin and his colleagues at the Navin Laboratory — which is focused on cancer genomics and computational biology research — have built on his early single-cell sequencing technologies to gain a better understanding of different aspects of breast cancer, including early progression, metastatic disease and resistance to various therapies.
“We generate very large data sets,” Navin explains. “Millions and billions of numbers. You can analyze with statistics and mathematics, but I always like to plot things and look at them to understand relationships.”
That’s where the art starts. Plotting scientific data allows researchers to visualize variation or show relationships between variables.
“It’s always a big challenge because you really want to make the right plots to understand the relationships between data,” says Navin, also a professor in the departments of Genetics and Bioinformatics & Computational Biology. “This is an important skill I try to teach all my students.”
Art inspired by research data, imagination and aesthetics
Navin’s art springs from this plotting. Although the art is inspired by research data, it also reflects Navin’s own imagination and aesthetic sensibility.
One of his illustrations, depicting six circles composed of smaller circles in multiple colors on a black background, responds to discoveries made while working on the Human Breast Cell Atlas — the world’s largest and most comprehensive map of normal breast tissue, created by researchers at MD Anderson, University of California, Irvine and Baylor College of Medicine.
“The circles represent a cross-section of the ducts in human breast tissues that transport milk during lactation to feed infants,” Navin explains. “The different colors represent the diversity of different types of epithelial cells that were discovered in the Human Breast Cell Atlas project, many of which still have unknown functions.”
Another of Navin’s renderings is reminiscent of stained glass, with six main blocks of color and multiple variations within each color.
“The mosaic of cells and colors represents a tissue section that has been barcoded and labeled with a new technology developed by our laboratory called spatial nucleus barcoding (SNUBAR),” Navin notes. “The different colors represent different groups of cells that have been barcoded across distinct spatial areas within the tissue, to identify spatial differences that they may have at the molecular level using downstream single-cell sequencing technologies.”
A cover illustration he created for a January 2018 issue of Cell shows multi-clonal invasion in premalignant breast cancer, in which multiple clones indicated by different colors escape the ducts and invade the surrounding tissues of the breast.
Navin’s goal is always the same: to create art that communicates something essential about the data for a broad audience.
“You try to give a higher-level interpretation of the data, especially for a more general journal like Nature,” he says. “A physicist might read it. Or a chemist.”
Art at home
Navin was raised with a deep appreciation for visual and computer-generated art.
His father, Richard Navin, was a well-known artist in New York City, where the family lived. Richard Navin had a sculpture exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum called “The Mycenae Circle” in 1981 and exhibited his work at the Whitney Museum of American Art and elsewhere.
“My father was a professor of art at Brooklyn College for many years, and he also taught computer science,” Navin says. “He was really a pioneer in computer-generated artwork and design. He worked closely with some companies, including Adobe, on very early three-dimensional graphics on computers. He tried to develop methods or algorithms to rotate simple objects like cubes and spheres.”
Richard Navin’s work rubbed off on his children, who learned basic art concepts from him at a very young age.
“I think it also influenced my decision to go to a liberal arts school for college, too, because although I loved computer science and biology, I wanted to go to a school with a strong art program,” says Navin, who attended Skidmore College in Upstate New York.
Navin is still steeped in art at home. His wife, Mei Rui, is a concert pianist and an assistant professor in Neurosurgery at MD Anderson. Rui has a D.M.A., a Doctor of Musician Arts, and her work explores how music can impact healing and patient care.
Both Navin and Rui hope to pass their respect and appreciation for art to the next generation.
“We have two children,” Navin says, “and I’m always thinking about how I can expose them to art.”