Artist and geneticist Hunter O'Reilly talks with grad student Kenute
Myrie at U-M Human Genetics department.
DNArtist: The lab inspires geneticist's artwork, on exhibit at
by Frank Prevenzano
Free Press Staff Writer
Wearing a whimsical scarf around her neck, Hunter O'Reilly breezes through the human
genetic research laboratories inside the University of Michigan medical complex.
She carries a purse made from pasted-together orange-drink wrappers, and regrets
she isn't wearing the black cowboy hat from her publicity photo.
She has the carefree lilt of a high-spirited artist from San Francisco, where she
grew up. She holds a PhD from the University of Wisconsin. Only when she's asked
a specific question about genetics is there a glimpse of the scientist who chooses
her words with care.
O'Reilly, 32, is as unconventional a scientist as she is an artist, not quite fitting
the stereotype of either world but assured of her place in both. In style, temperament
and ambition, she attempts to bridge the seemingly incompatible worlds of the objective
and the subjective.
Her effort to connect science and art can be seen in "Radioactive
Biohazard: Reinterpreting Science as Art," an exhibit of her work at the
U-M School of Art and Design's Warren M. Robbins Center Gallery.
"Art presents another way of thinking about the beauty and the possibilities
of science," says O'Reilly. An associate professor of genetics at the University
of Wisconsin-Parkside, she teaches a course called Biology
Through Art to rebut the notion that scientists have to be emotionally detached
from their work.
Since she first had her paintings of microscopic images of diseases on the covers
of national medical research journals five years ago, O'Reilly has shown a flair
for showing the aesthetically pleasing side of science.
Inspiration for her art includes viruses and anatomy. She has wrapped
a neon light around a pile of animal bones, and many of her colorful organic
forms appear as honeycomb, snake-like and crystalline shapes.
At its best, O'Reilly's work offers startling contrasts.
The title of her painting series "The
Art of Death" seems disconnected from the abstract shapes on the canvas.
The accompanying text, however, reveals that the images are microscopic views of
HIV, influenza, Ebola and herpes. The contrast is peculiar, yet likely to evoke a
"Someone will say, 'That's beautiful,' and then see it's HIV and think it's
revolting," says O'Reilly. "It's a way to show the prejudice people have
about disease, let alone how people become stigmatized when they have a disease."
O'Reilly is an unapologetic advocate for scientific research. Included in her exhibit
are homages to Randolfe
Wicker, one of the first human cloning activists, and the late female genetics
Franklin, who along with James Watson and Francis Crick played a critical role
in the discovery of the structure of DNA.
"Popular ideas about human genetics research have been shaped by science fiction,
superficial news coverage and people's fears of what would happen if the information
was misused for political reasons," O'Reilly says. "As a result, there's
a lot of negativity, prejudice and sensationalism."
A few weeks before her exhibit opened at U-M, O'Reilly came to Ann Arbor from her
home in Milwaukee to visit Elizabeth Petty at the U-M Department of Human Genetics.
Petty, who conducts research on the genetics of breast cancer, helped organize the
exhibit after admiring O'Reilly's art on the covers of science journals.
"We need to think in broader terms about where technology is leading and where
we want to go with it," says Petty, who also holds public forums about ongoing
ethical issues in medicine. "We need to find ways to get people to talk and
to start asking questions about how science relates to their lives."
The purists in the profession, she says, expect science to remain empirically based
and nonvisual. But Petty says there's a new wave of researchers like O'Reilly, who
are savvy about the multimedia world, and are finding ways to communicate the promise
of scientific research.
"This is a watershed moment in medical history," says Petty. "It's
a case where substance can have style."
Contact FRANK PROVENZANO at 313-222-6696 or firstname.lastname@example.org.