Morphogenesis of a project towards better science communication

Morphogenesis of a project towards better science communication

Author: Ana Mena, Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência, Portugal

Co-authors: Alexandra Paio, Luís Rocha, Manuel Marques-Pita, Maria de Assis

Science and Art projects can address difficult scientific messages, resulting in enriching experiences to the visitors. But how easy is it to create a multidisciplinary project with a strong scientific message? The interactive installation “Musical Morphogenesis” is a multidisciplinary project based on 6 main disciplines: complex systems, computational biology, music, architecture, robotics, and science communication. The implementation of all components of the installation had to take into consideration the specificities of each discipline, turning this into an extremely challenging project.

The main objective of “Musical Morphogenesis” was to take visitors in a sensorial journey to explore the dynamic interactions of genes and proteins during the development of an organ. Such biological processes are highly complex, with the same set of genes controlling the morphology of different organs depending on when they are activated. Taking advantage of a mathematical model of the gene-regulatory network responsible for the development of Arabidopsis thaliana flowers, the interdisciplinary team joined hands to create an installation whereby users can explore and play with the development of flowers at a human scale. The installation is composed of a robotic flower, whose kinetics reflects the temporal progression of the genetic network as it controls flower development, as well as of an interface to interact with the installation. Visitors can turn on or off one or more genes, steering the network towards the formation of different mutant organs. Finally, to facilitate the comprehension of the network, each gene has specific sound.

During the first public exhibition, the installation was highly appreciated as a piece of art and entertainment, but the scientific message was perhaps not conveyed as clearly as desirable. Based on this feedback, the installation has been remodeled. In this presentation, I will reflect on the challenges that were raised and solutions found to better convey the message.