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July 13, 2016

to Navigate “Contributing” : making & research flows – Callie Clayton / BFA TX ’17

by Callie Clayton



Plainly, what is research? and what does it look like for a visual learner, thinker?

Observation, writing, sketches, proposals

and patience.

What is the most effective and needed method, interpretation, translation I can provide in a community bio-lab? Thinking, sketching, proposing, and the key element; starting over has occupied a majority of my time these past few weeks.

The message and purpose of Genspace and most community bio-labs is to teach lab techniques and concepts surrounding the creation and evolution of the biotech movement to the public. In a past survey, a majority of Genspace class attendees would prefer taking a hands on class versus exclusively lecture + discussion. “Hands-on” or kinesthetic learning represents the body acting out motions, eye-hand coordination and not only physically, but also visually understanding processes.

And so, recordings or translations of these physical motions (pipetting, vortexing, etc) in visual 2D forms seems imperative to connect

1. written lab procedure with the

2. physical execution and finally

3. effect of the protocol (purpose and “expected” results of the experiment/protocol)



While participating in a beginner biotech class, my notes have consisted of understanding the details associated with teaching processes such as DNA Isolation and PCR (polymerase chain reaction- process of amplifying extracted DNA to create many copies of a specific sequence of DNA in order to look at the nucleotides/amount in the DNA sequence) and transformation (occurs naturally when e.coli bacteria bond with other e.coli to transfer plasmids through hair-like protein tubes called pili) this process allows for the alteration of a cell through the transfer of genetic information by a plasmid artificially and in the case of this class- we made an e.coli culture that expressed red fluorescent protein meaning it glowed red and ampicillin resistance. Focus of observations to work with have included:

  • What are the teaching methods?
  • How do class attendees absorb this information?
  • What are the key details to include in effective visuals outlining a lab protocol?

(Such as touching the pipette tip to the side of the tube when pipetting out a very small amount of liquid, such as 1 microliter, due to the surface tension of the liquid preventing it from easily exiting the pipette tip)

  • What metaphors seem to expound and explain processes?
  • What questions are class attendees asking?

Genspaceblog24 Genspaceblog27

An iGEM project completed in 2014 by students attending the University of Paris-Saclay revolved around the representation of objects- questions of reality brought up by Rene Magritte’s painting, “The Treachery of Images.” This painting displays a painted pipe and the words, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” under the pipe which translates as “this is not a pipe.” The project consisted of genetically modifying e.coli to produce the

fragrance of a lemon and simulate the ripening process of a lemon by changing its color gradually from green to yellow. A mixture of bacteria and solid growth medium will be moulded in a lemon shape: it will smell like a lemon, ripe like a lemon and look like a lemon, but “ceci n’est pas un citron” – this is not a lemon… or is it?”

This example project utilizing genetic engineering was brought up and briefly discussed in one of the classes. The response from class attendees was engagement of curiosity in a scaled out form. While it seems a majority of questions during classes revolve around specific techniques, ethics of all different types of GMO’s, CRISPR and press, this involvement of artphilosophical questioning seemed a key interpretive element for these larger topics considering genetic engineering.

Can art facilitate removed, wide- perspective processing of technology and ethics?

Is science able to quantify art is some form?


Suggestions for classes I’ve been thinking about and proposed include:

  • Including more examples of the effect of genetic engineering techniques such as transformation through plasmids by talking about art/design related genetic engineering work in order to facilitate better understanding of the effect and possibilities of what class attendees are learning on a basic scale. Art perhaps serves as a neutral ground between the realms of research and product.
  • Including teaching tools that physically represent the idea of biology as building blocks. Utilizing more hands-on tools to fill in steps of kinesthetic learning; content that is:        1. orally presented 2. written 3. drawn out 4. absorbed through visual diagrams (a key aspect I’m working on) 5. enacted with hands-on “building blocks” 6. procedure executed in lab and then repeated in opposite order to ensure understanding of the role of all reagents and organisms.
  • A “Question” page on the Genspace website and social media pages that stores questions to be answered on community nights such as the PCR + Pizza night. Questions could revolve around misconceptions of synthetic biology in the media, genetic modification processes, etc. After questions are answered on those community nights, icons on the “Question” page when clicked could expand with a thorough answer. This suggestion came out of the observation that people come to the lab however what do these class attendees leave with besides a series of written processes, protocols and written results in terms of learning take-aways? How can people continue to be involved with Genspace after leaving the space? and how can questions be more efficiently addressed and engage people outside of the direct lab space in a way that would encourage them to come to Genspace?
  • Workshop in relation to “Interpretation and Translation”:
    Artists/Designers/Public interpreting simple lab procedures such as DNA extraction to be featured with open source written protocols on sites such as “Open Lab Blueprint.” The course of the workshop could be slower paced and more question based in order to facilitate sketching or additional note taking for interpretative making. Essentially, this workshop could facilitate an amassing of visual and written open source lab protocol content in a variety of interpretations in order to accommodate varying learning styles.
  • Workshop revolving around creative writing and designing or interpreting lab protocols and procedures, perhaps “Storytelling of Lab Protocols through Poetry; how lab procedures and experiment results manifest in a literary form.” Evelyn Reilly, an ecopoet writes free verse poetry revolving around material and chemical compositions of man made materials such as Styrofoam in a form reminiscent of lab procedures. Poetry and lab protocols could be compared / contrasted and then merged in a literary form.


As I have continued to observe progress and lab protocols/ methods used by the Genspace iGEM Competition group, introductory biotech classes each week and interact with new-comers to Genspace during a “PCR + Pizza” community night and Kombucha and Ginger Bugs Fermentation Workshop (exciting research on the health benefits of fermentation for a range of health conditions, one of which is autism– check out “Missing Microbes” by Martin Blaser and a crowd-sourced, citizen science based project on mapping the human gut I’ve focused my work on sketched visual interpretations of lab protocols to be used in classes and ideas around making this a more accessible space– the latter I believe is closely linked to visual communication and aesthetic of branding and communication to the public.


Focus Questions:

  1. What learning techniques / answers are not being communicated well?
  2. What isn’t being talked about in relation to Genetic Engineering?

Thanks y’all- stay tuned for more thoughts on under utilized forms of visual interpretation and considerations of the “wisdom of the crowd” in relation to current events.




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