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Artists and scientists collaborate for fundraising efforts

By Paula Friedrich, Daily Staff Reporter
Published May 20, 2014

A fundraiser for the A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute hopes to tease out the connection between the left and right brain.

Organizers for the “An Evening of Art and Science” event asked eleven artists to create an art piece inspired by one of the Taubman scholar’s research. A ticketed gala event at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit will display the work Thursday evening. The art will then be put on auction to support the Taubman Emerging Scholars program.

The program funds the creation of a laboratory to aid early-career physicians who want to take on research endeavors. Assistant Medical Prof. Alon Kahana, who is currently one of the center’s emerging scholars, said help like this is essential for medical researchers as funding for public-sector grants continue to shrink.

Artists and physicians were paired earlier in the year to discuss the intersection of their work. Kahana was paired with Detroit-based artist Simone DeSousa. He said their collaboration started after DeSousa visited his laboratory at the top of the Kellogg Eye Center.

Kahana’s research interest lies in the ambiguous space between cell regeneration and cancerous growth. The mechanism behind cancer’s spread throughout the body is similar to that of natural cell regeneration — the only exception being that the cancer’s genetic code doesn’t have a signal to stop. Kahana said figuring out where that stop signal comes from could open new avenues to restoring damaged tissue in humans.

Kahana splits his time between his patients as an ophthalmic surgeon and his lab zebrafish as a researcher. Zebrafish regularly regenerate complex tissues and offer a genetic blueprint that is surprisingly similar to that of a human.

It was that similarity that stuck out to DeSousa as she toured the lab — walls of bubbling tanks filled with the tiny fish, some with transparent skin that reveal even tinier beating hearts.

DeSousa said her art usually starts with an unformed feeling that eventually coalesces into a concept she mulls over before she begins sketching. She said after visiting Kahana’s lab she was struck by the depth of the research. For her, “art is a point of entry into the human possibility,” and scientific research is a similar investigation into the unknown.

“Pure research and fine art are very similar in that way because there is no immediate expectation, or function yet,” DeSousa said. “It’s like this real space, this real exploration.”

She said her final piece centers where everything connects—zebrafish and humans, art and science—before more of the layers of life are peeled back.

“This whole program, it’s kind of bringing two things that are usually seen as opposites and showing their common ground,” she said.