Art, science students create exhibit for the Science Museum of Virginia

Amelia Heymann
Contributing Writer

VCU art and engineering students worked together to create the new exhibit called “Bioenergetics: Art Meets Gentle Science in Sickness and in Health,” which opened March 17. photo by Brooke Marsh

As most people who took biology in high school know, the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. According to Dr. Shilpa Iyer, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering at VCU, the mitochondria is important because it’s the part of the cell that controls how much energy you have.

A team of selected undergraduates and faculty from the VCU School of Arts and the School of Engineering have teamed up to create projects on the importance of mitochondria and bioenergetics. The projects will be exhibited at the Science Museum of Virginia for the next three months.

The name of the exhibit is “Bioenergetics: Art Meets Gentle Science in Sickness and in Health.” Iyer said this exhibit is about how mitochondrial defects affect a person’s energy level, along with how exercise and good eating help the mitochodria to produce energy in healthy people. The mitochondria produces a lot of a person’s energy, and the health of the mitochondria affects the overall health of the person.

Iyer studies mitochondrial research, and said research has shown that while the nucleus is important, the mitochondria is also a key player in extending or improving the lifespan of an individual.

Iyer was pushed to start this project when she read a recent article that said 40 percent of children suffer from some sort of energy deficiency. Some of these problems include childhood obesity, chronic fatigue, diabetes, the list goes on. Many of these aren’t modern, but were only recently discovered to be associated with mitochondrial defects.

While mitochondria are inherited through the mother, there are multiple factors that can affect the health of your mitochondria including stress, the food you eat and how active your lifestyle is. Iyer said this exhibit seeks to educate the public on how healthy eating and an active lifestyle can improve your health by positively changing the energy levels in your body.

“We definitely rely on this (the mitochondria) more than most of us think,” said Kevin Ball, a biomedical engineering major at VCU working on the exhibit. “If you’re not going to treat it right, it’s going to reciprocate the same.”

Iyer and colleagues submitted a proposal to create the exhibit in  response to a call received from the Quest Innovation Fund in December 2013. This is a VCU organization that awards funds to proposals that help achieve the university’s “Quest for Distinction” goals.

Ball is one of 16 students working on the project. The idea was pitched to students in January, and Ball said the students that were selected began working on the exhibit in June 2014. They were lectured on both the scientific and artistic design and team building processes. He said it became almost a fusion of the two teaching methods.

“You see that the engineer and the artist are both very similar,” Ball said. “They both visualize a problem in their head and figure out a multimedia way to either solve the problem, or create an image that expresses a solution or message.”

Ball said that engineering and art students were put into teams with at least one artist and one science major who worked together. While the students were split off into teams, Iyer said the students fed off of each other. Emily Tompkins, a senior in communication arts, created a mascot of a mitochondria, and a student in another group, Gwendolyn Wood, a recent graduate from communication arts, turned it into a plush doll.

Ball said that his role as a biomedical engineering student would be to explain how the mitochondria degradation affects the way they produce proteins, and talked to and learned from physicians about how they treat this. He said there aren’t currently any medicines for this because it is a recently discovered subject. He and other science students would explain this information to the art students who would then create charts or posters to explain the information.

With everyone from sculpture to computer science majors working on the exhibit, Ball said there will be many different sections to see. He said some of the multimedia features we can expect to see range from a sculpted model of the mitochondria to an interactive computer game.

Iyer said these projects convey information that is usually abstract so that it is easily understood. She hopes the exhibit will make more people aware of how they eat, and help them to take better care of themselves.

“I want people to eat healthy and exercise because they know why they should and want to, not because I told them to,” Iyer said.

The exhibit is now on display at the Science Museum of Virginia and will be there until June 2015.

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