“The Observer” – Jaffna Mathiaparanam, 2019.

About the Artist:

Jaffna Mathiaparanam grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin and graduated from UW Madison in 2017 with a degree in neurobiology. During her freshman year, a friend recommended going through the Biocore program for a biology track. This suggestion started a wonderful experience with the Biocore community. Besides the classes and labs, Jaffna was part a peer mentoring group and eventually became an undergraduate TA. She also got to participate in the 2014 Prairie Crew and helped at the Summer Science Camp organized by the Biocore Outreach Ambassadors. She entered graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall of 2019 to pursue a PhD in neuroscience. Jaffna also likes all things green including green jolly ranchers, nature walks, sustainable farming/food initiatives, and the Incredible Hulk.

“I was really excited for the opportunity to paint a mural reflecting on my experiences with Biocore, science, and art. On the surface, the mural represents many of the large concepts taught in Biocore; ecology, physiology, evolution and diversity, signal transduction and genetics. But it’s really the way that these categories interact and influence each other that makes the process of discovering science an exciting field to pursue. I hope that when you are in the midst of your research not working, that you think about the big picture and all the amazing mysteries in our world that got you excited about science in the first place. You definitely will acquire the skills to answer your questions but you’ve always had the imagination to create them.”

Mural Features:

Face: The person on the mural represents the personal contribution of every individual that participates in the process of science. Although we have standardized techniques and methodologies to complete experiments, it’s really the creativity and imagination of taking past knowledge and applying it to new scenarios that really allows us to create the big, far-reaching questions that drive science forward. And this is completely dependent on what information we personally decide to pay attention to and the unique connections we might notice from those observations. I think that when you look at science this way, it becomes a lot like the process of making art, where artists take things from the world around them to reflect metaphors and ideas that are their own.

Protein structure levels: At the left of the mural, I included several images meant to represent different levels of protein structure starting from the primary amino acids to the more complex secondary alpha helices and beta sheets. I represented the tertiary/quaternary structure of proteins with less specific shapes along the right edge of the mural, intentionally keeping them simple to illustrate the information you gain and lose when looking at proteins in different ways. I also wanted to represent the crowded conditions of the cell, which isn’t always obvious when we depict specific signaling pathways.

Lung/tree system: One aspect of the organismal biology class that I really enjoyed as a student was seeing how analogous structures mirrored each other in form, which sort of connected larger patterns of good design for function. Some examples include the way several organ systems use designs that maximize surface area to create the most interface with their environment, like microvilli in the gut, folding in the cerebrum, and capillary division in the circulatory system. The functions of tree branching and bronchial branching in the lungs is a particularly synonymous comparison of the “breathing” apparatuses of plant and animal species. Its amazing to think that the basic patterns maximizing gas exchange could be featured so similarly in organisms separate by millions of years of evolution.

Brain/brainstem: I depicted the usual structures of the cerebrum, limbic system, and cerebellum and connected them to a brain “stem” of prairie flower species.

Roots/rhizosphere: on the left of the mural, I wanted to convey the extent of the root system found in prairie plants. The expansiveness of what were often smaller above-ground plants was one of the first ‘wow’ moments I had in Biocore and I thought the ecology lab did a great job in not only conveying that wonder of a system like that but urging students to ask further questions about why such proportions were necessary/evolved. I think it was a very straightforward introduction into hypothesizing the functionality behind specific morphologies and mechanisms that became a continuous question in labs across disciplines. Additionally, the roots are wound around blue spheres which are supposed to abstractly depict the small, local rhizosphere that exists around roots. After learning about the crucial microbe and nutrient interactions largely confined to these spaces, I wanted to depict how what I formally thought was a limited space by size was actually quite vast in function, hence the spheres becoming almost sky-like.

Organ system: I wanted to depict many of the major human organ systems and emphasize the extent of their interaction in the mural. Each organ is complex enough on its own and we often learn about them in a very separate nature. But it’s very relevant in research how these systems influence each other and the surrounding tissues.

Model Systems: One thing I learned in Biocore labs and in my research experience was the amount of information that relied on knowing a model system really well, both to manipulate that system creatively and to know its limitations. I depicted yeast and C. elegans as a few examples of the models I was exposed to in lab.