Spring 2024

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A colorful exhibit in the entrance of the UW Engineering Building. The art piece is a colorful combination of blocks with different parts of different animals combining.
The Genetic Symphonies exhibit in the lobby of UW's Engineering Building. Photo by Michael P. King


In the intricate symphony of life’s development, there exists a genetic composer. The Hox gene family orchestrates the breathtaking diversity of forms found in the natural world, from the elegant curve of a swan’s neck to the delicate fingers of a pianist.

During their orchestrations, Hox genes undergo complicated processes that can be difficult to describe. But art can help people visualize and understand such complex scientific concepts in better ways. This is the inspiration behind Genetic Symphonies: The Building Hox of Life, an interactive, art-science fusion exhibit, developed by CALS graduate students Katharine Hubert MS’21 and Sharon Tang MS’22, that reveals the captivating world of Hox genes.

The exhibit conveys developmental biology concepts using light and sound. To reflect the pivotal role of Hox genes in embryonic development, this multimodal exhibit uses 13 painted building blocks to represent the 13 groups of mammalian Hox genes. The blocks are controlled by 13 respective buttons on an accompanying podium. Because Hox genes must be activated in a specific order for development to occur, viewers must figure out the correct sequence for pressing the buttons. When pressed in the correct order, the buttons switch on the exhibit’s light and sound.

Hubert and Tang conceived and created the exhibit as part of the Marie Christine Kohler Fellowship at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID). The fellowships foster an interdisciplinary community that creates content fusing science and art.

Hubert, who is pursuing a Ph.D in genetics, says her artistic interests and passion for scientific research are fueled by her experiences living with her own genetic condition — experiences she hopes can help fill gap sin scientific knowledge. Hubert has established herself as a leader in disability advocacy within STEM, creating accessible lab equipment and advocating for inclusive and accessible practices, some features of which can be found in this exhibit. Hubert works in the lab of genetics professor Deneen Wellik PhD’95, who provided consultation for the project.

Tang, a mural artist in the cellular and molecular biology Ph.D. program, uses her background in education to create public art that helps viewers lead their own process of discovery. She believes art can connect people to content they might otherwise find unapproachable. Tang is a student in the lab of Wilmara Salgado-Pabón PhD’08, an associate professor in the UW School of Veterinary Medicine, who Tang credits for providing freedom and encouragement for interdisciplinary pursuits.

Genetic Symphonies invites the public into an experience where science and art converge and artistic tools encourage public connection with scientific concepts. The exhibit is moving around the UW campus during the 2023–24 academic year.

⊕ Back to the cover story, Art Brings Understanding

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