Detroit Free Press

Provenzano, Frank, “DNArtist: The lab inspires geneticist's artwork, on exhibit at U-M,” September 4, 2002


Wearing a whimsical scarf around her neck, Hunter O'Reilly (now known as Hunter Cole) 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 curious response. 

"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 researcher Rosalind 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

© 2002 Detroit Free Press