From the moment Michael Zimber first put his eye to a microscope, he appreciated the other-worldliness of the abstract images he was seeing. His dad was a veterinarian who brought his microscope home on the weekends, so Zimber spent a lot of time collecting leaves, mud-puddle water and even blood by pricking his own fingers and squinting into the microscope lens as he examined his specimens.
"I definitely recognized the beauty at such a small scale," Zimber says, sitting in his office at a biotechnology company in Sorrento Valley, his perfectly pressed white lab coat draped over a hanger on the back of his office door.
Zimber eventually moved on from analyzing leaves and mud and earned a doctorate degree in neuroscience. Zooming in on little pieces of sliced-up brain completely rocked his world.
"When you look at the absolutely awe-inspiring complexities of the brain, you recognize that it's not just a bunch of mush," Zimber says. "Even our liver, which is probably the mushiest organ I can think of, is incredibly structured—it has a beautiful architecture. But the brain—of course, I'm biased—but when you see the neural networks of the brain, it's pretty hard not to be humbled."
Zimber works at Histogen as the director of applied research. In part, he helps cultivate special cells that produce a protein with regenerative qualities—a protein that's then used in skin-care products and, eventually, once the company is out of clinical trials, hair regrowth. A smattering of abstract art pieces hanging on a wall in Zimber's office gives the otherwise muted interior some color. At first glance, the images simply look like contemporary abstract art.
"I thought it was peacock feathers," laughs Janet Hubka, who saw one of the images hanging on Zimber's walls for the first time a little more than a year ago while visiting her husband Mark's office (Mark also works at Histogen). Hubka, who has experience in interior design, was there to help her husband fill his blank walls with art.
"I looked at his screensaver on his computer, and I said, 'I really like these feathers,'" she says. "And he explained that they were actually cells from the lab."
Hubka liked the image so much that she had the digital file printed on canvas and hung it in her husband's office. Zimber, who'd captured the image during research years earlier, told Hubka he'd often thought about how the interesting patterns and colors he saw through his microscope would make for captivating art. He'd always wanted to pursue the idea but never had time.
"I said to him, 'Well, now I have time,'" says Hubka, who'd recently left her post as an administrator at the Osteopathic Center for Children, where she worked for more than a decade.
Hubka dove in. She did market research and wrote a business plan for what eventually took shape as Ilus Art, a company that uses cellular images captured by working scientists, prints the images on thin sheets of aluminum and sells them as sleek contemporary art. The new business venture is just a year old, but already Hubka has sold several pieces, printed cellular art for other companies and foundations in the biotech industry and recently collaborated with Biocom, a biotech trade organization, in organizing Taking Art to the Cellular Level, an exhibition of cell imagery currently hanging at the San Diego International Airport.
"These are basically human dermal fibroblasts," Zimber says, pointing to the image that looks like peacock feathers and now hangs in his office (the same image has since been printed and sold several times; Ilus Art doesn't do limited editions unless itís a special circumstance). "I was interested in knowing what kinds of cell markers were being expressed."
The vivid colors, he explains, are the result of dyes used by researchers using florescent microscopes. Like a true scientist eager to get the public to understand, Zimber picks up a green marker and begins drawing pictures on a white board to help illustrate how the different dyes bond to particular parts of the cell.
"I was looking at the different types of proteins expressed, so that's the green color you see," Zimber says. "The blue is the nuclear DNA, and the red is actually a poison from a mushroom. The poison adheres to the acting filaments... Think of that as the skeleton of the cell."
Zimber, who's won awards for his cellular art, uses an expensive, very sensitive black-and-white camera to capture his microscopic imagery. While his scientific side looks for technical aspects only other science enthusiasts might critique, working with Hubka has taught him to let go a little and enjoy the images from a purely aesthetic perspective. He's even started using some artistic license, playing with filters and contrast.
While Ilus Art is still a young company focused mostly on selling work to biotech-industry insiders and interior-design consultants working in the medical field, Hubka has plans to market the work to the general public.
A major goal for both Zimber and Hubka is to use Ilus Art to get the work in front of kids to help entice them into a career in science. The company has donated several pieces to schools, and Zimber says he thinks showing a more creative side of science can help spark kids' interest.
"We're not just a bunch of guys with slide rules and pocket protectors," he laughs. "We're actually a very creative and dynamic group of people."
Ilus Art prints come with detailed scientific description cards affixed to the back. Whether or not people read and understand the information, Hubka and Zimber think that once folks recognize that the beautiful imagery is actually cells, it'll lead to a fascinating conversation at the very least.
"On one hand, you look in and say, 'Wow, we're never going to figure this all out,'" Zimber says. "We can go further and further and look at the cellular level, the molecular level, the atomic level, the quantum level and then you go, 'When and where will we ever stop?'"