Pfizer’s La Jolla image contest illuminates intersection of science, art
By Joseph Herrgard
Pfizer Worldwide Communications
Special to the LightState-of-the-art imaging technologies have the ability to enhance the scientific data coming out of Pfizer’s research and development labs, including microscopes that employ X-rays and fluorescent dyes to detect the spread of breast cancer cells or the reduction of lung cancer tumors in lab experiments. But can these images also be viewed as art?
Without a doubt, according to Suchitra Ananthnarayan, a scientist at Pfizer La Jolla, one of the company’s major research and development facilities. Ananthnarayan was inspired to launch the site’s first annual Art Microscopy Contest after using a fluorescent microscope in her work pursuing potential cancer drug targets within the company’s Oncology Research Unit. Microscopy is the technical field of using microscopes to view samples and objects, such as human and animal cells, which could not otherwise be seen with the unaided eye.
“As scientists and non-scientists working on different aspects of making medicines, we can appreciate each other’s roles by understanding the beauty of science,” said Ananthnarayan. “At Pfizer we have state-of-the-art imaging technologies but they are only as outstanding as the experts who operate them. Besides promoting art appreciation, I wanted to launch this contest in order to publicize the shared microscopes that we have at Pfizer, hoping that this will encourage new collaborations and ideas.”
The winning entry was entitled “New Star Formation” and was submitted by Minh Giang Phan from Pfizer’s Medicinal Chemistry group, who used an optical light microscope at 80x resolution to capture an image of EGFR (epidermal growth factor receptor) protein crystals.
Some of the other 47 submissions included an image of cells from pulmonary arteries as photographed by Jeffrey Nickel using a fluorescent imaging microscope at 40x resolution, and a botanical specimen captured by Lars Engstrom using an automated inverted fluorescence/bright field microscope at 20x magnification. (The images submitted by Nickel and Engstrom, who both work as scientists in Pfizer’s Oncology Research Unit, tied for second place.) Each of the contest winners received gift cards as well as framed copies of their images.
The contest was coordinated by Pfizer La Jolla’s Art Connection, a colleague resource group whose mission is to “support the development, expression, and preservation of arts and culture by providing opportunities, increasing awareness and fostering diversity in cultural arts for the benefit and enjoyment of Pfizer La Jolla Colleagues.”
According to co-chair Carolyn Lemm, Art Connection partners closely with Pfizer’s New York-based art curator to showcase global exhibits and look for community outreach opportunities, including donating artwork for local charities, hosting book drives and supplying free art supplies to the Rady’s Children’s Hospital in San Diego.
Similar images from Pfizer’s labs were viewed by an estimated 11 million visitors to San Diego International Airport in 2008 as part of an exhibit entitled “Cell Culture.” Organized by life science association BIOCOM to promote the “2008 BIO International Convention,” the exhibit was later on display in public libraries and schools throughout the region.
“We have a longstanding history in La Jolla of incorporating science and art, and we are always trying to find creative ways to link the two,” said Lemm. “This contest was a great example of just that — enabling our colleagues to be innovative and creative and, in the end, showcasing their science.”
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