Science and cinema form an alliance to find new paths in biology research
Science and cinema students are teaming up to find interesting new ways of interpreting and understanding scientific knowledge to improve the human condition. Photos courtesy of Kyle McClary.

Science and cinema form an alliance to find new paths in biology research

A call for researchers to find convergent bioscience opportunities engenders an unexpected initiative, one that brings USC science and cinematic arts students together to find answers in biology.
ByDarrin S. Joy

Raymond Stevens looks for opportunity — particularly any that may improve the human condition.

Frustrated with the slow progress and inefficiency inherent in current methods of disease diagnosis and treatment, he is on the lookout for solutions.

“I have this personal belief that scientists are constrained by the type of data they collect and are most comfortable with,” he said. Stevens, director of the Bridge Institute at the USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience, believes these constraints or silos, often the result of academe’s tradition of isolated research, are delaying results and limiting progress. The answer, he says, is to remove them.

“Elon Musk with Tesla, he broke down the silos. Steve Jobs with the iPhone, he broke down the silos. So, can we do that at a university setting?”

To encourage collaboration and hasten scientific advances, Stevens invited experts from a variety of fields — chemists, engineers, physicists and neurobiologists, among others — to an (ironically) isolated retreat at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Santa Catalina Island off Los Angeles’ coast. There, he challenged them to work together and propose projects bridging different fields and addressing intractable problems in bioscience.

One proposal in particular stood out.

The art of science

Evan Tedlock, an MFA student in USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, was a bit overwhelmed by the science. Invited to the retreat by Richard Weinberg, research associate professor in the John C. Hench Division of Animation and Digital Arts at USC, Tedlock was impressed with Stevens’ request for collaboration proposals, but he didn’t expect to participate.

“But then, as we were leaving the lecture hall,” Tedlock said, “Richard grabbed my arm and said, ‘Evan, you have to pitch a project tomorrow.’”

Tedlock mingled among the scientists, looking for a collaborator and came across Kyle McClary, a fourth-year Ph.D. student studying chemistry in Stevens’ lab. McClary suggested they work together, and the two discussed several possible collaborations, including a video game centered on designing a microbiome and a drawing class for scientists. The ideas soon evolved into something bigger.

“We thought, ‘Why do we have to do just one project? Why can’t we create an organization that funds many projects?’” Tedlock said.

McClary knew the idea was a winner. “I just figured that we had the best shot because the whole purpose of the event was for convergent projects, bringing together two disciplines. Obviously, the art and the science was going to be the most far-out proposal out there,” he said.

The judges agreed, awarding half the money available for students to McClary and Tedlock. The pair soon launched the Bridge Arts & Science Alliance.

Photo of Evan Tedlock and Kyle McClary

Graduate students Kyle McClary, right, and Evan Tedlock co-founded the Bridge Arts and Science Alliance.

Learning from one another

“The core of our mission is that we want artists to learn from scientists and scientists to learn from artists,” McClary said.

The duo has organized numerous events aimed at bringing cinematic arts students together with science and engineering students — both undergraduates and graduates are welcome — to encourage them to develop collaborative ventures. The initiative has spawned nearly a dozen projects, from a virtual reality method of managing pain to a documentary on the opioid crisis, and from animation shorts — including two produced in the Bridge Undergraduate Science program — to an interactive 3D exploration of human cells.

As the teams work together, they teach each other the ins and outs of their fields. The objective is a better understanding of the science.

McClary sites an initiative called The World in a Single Cell as a powerful example of this effect. A major project goal centers on making science more comprehensible.

“One of the biggest efforts … is to break down some of this language that is just so inaccessible and to reframe it in a way that is more intuitive, using metaphor and storytelling,” McClary said.

That’s true not just between scientists and artists, but between specialists in different fields.

“The Bridge Institute is trying to bring all of these multiple disciplines together, not just art and science, but different sciences as well as science and engineering,” said Tedlock. “The more that we can get scientists to buy into this idea of metaphor and storytelling, the easier it will be to communicate with other scientists to potentially expand their research into these more collaborative areas.”

Projects like The World in a Single Cell are also helping scientists visualize their work in new ways.

“We’re creating new representations of what we think some of these cellular components look like,” McClary said. “Obviously, all these things inside a cell are way too small for even the most powerful microscopes. So there’s a lot of artistic freedom there. We’re basically taking advantage of that in a way to visualize things in a new way that helps communicate new ideas to help push the science further.”

That’s a key point, according to Weinberg. “The students … use animation, or live action, or sound, or whatever it takes to get the story across, using the knowledge that the artists have about how you actually make the information understandable and usable, as well as visually appealing. I think that could go a long way to helping scientists understand what they’re doing.”

Stevens concurs. Himself something of an embodiment of convergent science — he is Provost Professor of Biological Sciences, Chemistry, Neurology, Physiology and Biophysics, and Chemical Engineering and Materials Science — he sees the joint efforts of artists and sciences as not just helpful, but necessary.

“At first I thought this initiative was going to be about teaching scientists to use digital art tools for data integration analysis,” he said. But the summer gave him an “aha moment” when he heard an artist describe science in a completely new and clearer way. “I now ask the cinema students, ‘Why just make another film when you can do both? Make a film and help to understand a disease or develop a new medicine.’”

Convergent science at USC Dornsife

By drawing from a diverse network of scientists, engineers and students, the USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience fosters biomedical discovery, innovation and real-world solutions to fast-track detection and cures for diseases ranging from microbial infections to Alzheimer’s and cancer.

This fall, USC will open the hub for the initiative, Michelson Hall — a 190,000 square-foot, high-tech research facility supported by a $50 million gift from retired spinal surgeon Gary K. Michelson and his wife, Alya Michelson.