Extract from Journal for Visual Communication in Medicine

The Antibacterial Animal collaboration with Dr Raechelle D’Sa and Mark Roughley, LJMU was published in the. JVCM in December 2019. A satisfying end to an exciting collaborative project. A very short extract is provided here.

Antibacterial Animals

We are living in a time of enormous risk. Years of antibiotic overuse and misuse has contributed to a global threat, where an increase in antibiotic resistant bacteria are contributing to approximately 700,000 deaths per year. International institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UK government are calling for new antibiotics and strategies to combat resistance.

Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria adapt to antimicrobial drugs. These bacteria are often referred to as “superbugs”, and the drugs used to treat them become ineffective, infections persist in the body, and the risk of spread to others increases. Superbugs are negatively contributing to our healthcare system‘s ability to treat patients effectively and the world urgently needs to change the way it prescribes and uses antibiotics. Unless new antibiotics or alternative strategies are developed to cope with this problem, society will no longer able to routinely use certain antibiotics. The simplest of medical procedures will also become life threatening. 

We Need to Stop Bacteria Getting Together

Dr. Raechelle D’Sa, a Senior Lecturer in Antimicrobial Biomaterials in the School of Engineering at the University of Liverpool, and director of the D’Sa Laboratory (http://dsalaboratory.com), researches the use bio-materials for the creation of antimicrobial surfaces, drug delivery and regenerative medicine. The D’Sa Laboratory has expertise ranging from materials science and engineering to cell biology, and applies engineering methods to create environments to promote cell and tissue growth, and prevent bacterial adhesion.

Introducing Antibacterial Animals

One of the wider challenges with antibiotic resistance is encouraging the public to change their attitudes and behaviours when it comes to antibiotic use and hygiene practices. In 2019, the D’Sa Laboratory collaborated with the STEAM Lab at the University of Liverpool (https://www.liverpool.ac.uk/humanities-social-sciences-health-medicine-technology/themes/arts-lab/), and Mark Roughley, Programme Leader for the MA Art in Science at Liverpool John Moores University (https://www.ljmu.ac.uk/study/courses/postgraduates/art-in-science-ma) on an EPSRC and University of Liverpool funded public engagement project titled Antimicrobial Avengers (www.germwars.co.uk).

Gecko family with exaggerated antimicrobial spikes

THE ART OF THE HAPPY ACCIDENT

To borrow a phrase that potters use when a beautiful glaze finally emerges from the kiln in a way that they never expected, My collaboration with Antibacterial Avengers project has seen a succession of happy accidents and a few mishaps along the way, but let’s just concentrate on the happy accidents:

  • shared and instant enthusiasm between Dr D’Sa and myself for the potential of animals to change the face of antibacterial resistance
  • shared and instant enthusiasm between Dr D’Sa and myself that we could produce a more exciting and accessible exhibition than the Science Museum (ambitious maybe)
  • finding out from Dr D’Sa that I had made the wrong type of Gecko spike just in time and a day later the clay would have hardened too much to extract and replace with thw correct sort of spike
  • meeting Jessica Irwin, the antibacterial cartoonist and former Art In Science MA only to find that our work was immensely compatible in both style and colour
  • I never did talk to Dr D’Sa about the budget for ceramic materials and in the end the issue resolved itself. Dr D’Sa has found a space in her science budget for a set of ceramic animals
Gecko family

MILESTONES AND BUDGET

NOVEMBER 2018

Helen Birnbaum and Dr Raechelle D’Sa visit the Superbug Exhibition at the Science Museum, Kensington (separately) before we even met.

DECEMBER 2018

First meeting to discuss our collaboration in 2019 and shown photographs and 3D modelled surfaces to enable production of maquettes. Regular communication begins.

JANUARY 2019

First maquettes made and shown to Dr D’Sa and regular email communication starts.

FEBRUARY 2019

Maquettes for shark made and images shown to Dr D’Sa.

MARCH 2019

Light Night Meeting to discuss:

  • role of artists to interest and inform and then direct to scientists
  • visitor numbers and how best to accommodate a large crowd in the exhibition space including responsibilities of each participant to ensure that this goes well,
  • different activities for different age groups planned,
  • set-up of exhibition space (image shown below),
  • lighting and display of ceramics in relation to the cartoon screening
  • transportation of ceramics to JLADB gallery
  • which surfaces are available to safely display ceramics and
    which cabinets and plinths will be used.
  • security of all work
    and publicity
JLADB front wIndow area exhibition space

Further activities in March 2019

Meeting with Dr D’Sa and Dr Leach to discuss bacterial memory and regular project updates,

Revise Geckos – spikes wrong and glaze a disaster (more than once). Revise work in accordance with Dr D’Sa’s suggestions,

Arrange for firing/dates/delivery of Komodo in another larger kiln. Deliver Komodo Dragon in leather hard state so it does not crack in transit.

APRIL 2019

Ceramic animals completed,

Publicity undertaken, responsibilities for exhibition agreed.

MAY 2019

17 May Antibacterial Avengers Light Night Exhibition

FROM MAY 2019 ONWARDS

Ceramic animals purchased by Dr D’Sa and join the Antibacteirial Avengers roadshow

FINAL REFLECTIONS

Final reflections

Art is science made clear said Jean Cocteau and I endeavour to follow this tenet and use my artistic practice to bring clarity to science and work closely with scientists to communicate new ideas and reach new understandings.  As an Art in Science MA student I am naturally drawn towards collaboration and to the notion of generating new ideas from disparate subjects.  .

As a ceramic artist utilising a truly ancient art form and material I felt that I was something of an anomaly in in Art Science practice and quite different from the other digital and fine art students on my course, but, recently finding that the revered art scientists Eleanor Crook and Paddy Hartley are fundamentally potters I cheered for other art scientists using clay to illuminate and communicate science.  And, as a potter, you believe in the art of the Happy Accident – the glaze that accidentally turns out right, the ceramic form that unexpectedly works well and this applied to my project with Dr D’Sa.  It just worked. This feels like it is just the right project.

…and the Antibacterial Animals Continue

Dr D’Sa is already so happy with my ceramic Antibacterial Animals that she wants to purchase all of them for her touring Antibacterial Avengers show.  I am immensely satisified that this is the outcome of this project and delighted that the ceramic animals will continue to collaborate.

Komodo Dragon busting MRSA

COLLABORATIVE PROJECT OVERVIEW

  • Initial discussions with Dr D’Sa to establish the nature of my involvement with the project,
  • regular communication  with Dr D’Sa, and my tutor Mark Roughley, which included sharing sketches, photographs and ideas with to see if my visual interpretation of her research was correct,
  • visit to Chester Zoo to take photographs of Komodo Dragons and Geckos,
  • choosing which animals to sculpt in ceramic which would be of most educational benefit was selected through my regular communication with  Dr D’Sa,
  • discussions with Dr Andrew Leach, Computational Chemistry, LJMU and Dr Raechelle D’Sa  to enable my understanding of the role of bacterial memory and antibacterial surfaces,
  • attending Light Night planning meetings with representatives from both LJMU and Liverpool University to plan the 17 May exhibition the John Lennon Art & Design building,
  • communication  with my tutor Mark Roughley for his reactions and guidance.

ANTIBACTERIAL AVENGERS – A REFLECTION ON COLLABORATION


I collaborated with Dr Raechelle D’Sa an antibacterial engineer from Liverpool University who is researching the chemistry behind using bio-materials for antimicrobial surfaces, drug delivery and regenerative medicine.


Introducing animals with macroscopic antibacterial surfaces

Shark with macroscopic skin texture – and a fierce set of teeth

A hugely important aspect of Dr D’Sa’s work is engaging a wider public audience with the impact of antibacterial resistance on our lives in a touring Antibacterial Avengers show.  My collaboration has been in designing  and producing a set of ceramic animals with macroscopic antibacterial textured surfaces to communicate ideas about antibacterial surfaces and their role in antibiotic resistance. This exciting collaborative project allowed me to move my work on from  mere microscopic descriptions of disease in clay to a collaboration with a team communicating life changing ideas about how e as a society combat disease at a time of antibiotic resistance. We have abused the privilege of antibiotics and it’s now time to do something about it.

Other LJMU MA Art in Science representatives, including Jessica Irwin, antibacterial cartoonist are already collaborating.  My project plan can be found here on my Antibacterial Animals blog  https://helenbirnbaumsantibacterialanimals.wordpress.com/  whilst my journey through my year of Collaborative practice is on my main LJMU MA Art in Science blog https://helenbirnbaumsartscienceadventures.wordpress.com/

My involvement with the Antibacterial Avengers project has included:

  • Initial discussions with Dr D’Sa to establish the nature of my involvement with the project,
  • regular communication  with Dr D’Sa, and my tutor Mark Roughley, which included sharing sketches, photographs and ideas with to see if my visual interpretation of her research was correct,
  • visit to Chester Zoo to take photographs of Komodo Dragons and Geckos,
  • choosing which animals to sculpt in ceramic which would be of most educational benefit was selected through my regular communication with  Dr D’Sa,
  • discussions with Dr Andrew Leach, Computational Chemistry, LJMU and Dr Raechelle D’Sa  to enable my understanding of the role of bacterial memory and antibacterial surfaces,
  • attending Light Night planning meetings with representatives from both LJMU and Liverpool University to plan the 17 May exhibition the John Lennon Art & Design building,
  • communication  with my tutor Mark Roughley for his reactions and guidance.

Collaborating with the Antibacterial Avengers at Liverpool Light Night May 2019

‘Did you know that the Komodo dragon has a protein on its dirty tongue that kills MRSA on all surfaces?’  read the sign at the Superbug Exhibition about society’s response to  the enormous challenge of antibiotic resistance at the Science Museum in Kensington, but I became disappointed at this fascinating and vital information hidden away in the dark at the back of the vast museum.

Weeks’ later Mark Roughley said ‘there’s someone you really should meet.’ So I went to see Dr Raechelle D’Sa  at Liverpool University.  ‘Information behind glass’ was our instant and shared response to the Superbug Exhibition and so started our collaboration  with the feeling that we could make antibacterial surfaces altogether more exciting and show people how important this is. Our first meeting communication enabled me to establish how I might develop the stronger, more educational role for my work which I had been trying to realise for some time prior to starting the Art in Science MA.

Working with Dr D’Sa I gained an understanding that antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria change in response to the use of these medicines.  Bacteria, not humans or animals, become antibiotic resistant and the world urgently needs to change the way it prescribes and uses antibiotics.  Dr D’Sa provided me with information about all the creatures she was studying including details about their skin textures to enable me to replicate them in ceramic. The first creature I started to design was a Gecko with spiky skin.

Gecko spikes come in different sizes

The challenge was not to emulate the Gecko skin, but exaggerate, their antibacterial surfaces to make them more obvious and understandable to an audience.  The Gecko skin is a micro/nano structure – a low adhesion, super-hydrophobic, antibacterial surface and I wanted this to make immediate sense to an on-looker.  The first version of my ceramic Gecko had wrong spikes (too stubby and vertical) but  Dr D’Sa didn’t criticise, instead sent me pictures of what it was actually mean to look like (elongated, sharper and leaning sideways) and the second version was much better.  Exchanging emails, sending images and drawing the specimens, from photographs and from my visit to Chester Zoo, all played their part in achieving the ceramic 3d representations that both Dr D’Sa and I were happy with.

Creating amphibians and sharks with highly textured surfaces has opened up a new dimension in my ceramics that I had been seeking prior to enrolling at LJMU.  I had been creating viral and bacterial forms in ceramics for many years creating huge board games with microbial pieces to explore and educate.  Although I had exhibited and enjoyed some success with my OUTBREAK ceramics I was still dissatisfied because they remained as ceramic copies of microscopic forms without an extra dimension of understanding or meaning. The Antibacterial Avengers collaborationhas provided me with the key to greater satisfaction in my work about microscopic bacteria and viruses. I had long felt dissatisfied with what I was doing and that my viral sculptures had no relevance other than being attractive representations of bacterial forms and I wanted this to lead somewhere else. Creating animal sculptures with antibacterial surfaces for with Dr DS’a provided me with this satisfaction. 

         

  My first Light Night meeting   

I had my first meeting with the LJMU and Liverpool University Light Night participants having already created some of my ceramic creatures in order that I had something to show them. Although I knew that Dr D’Sa was happy with my work (having altered my Gecko spikes) I did not know how everyone else would react. I felt quite protective of my work because the process of arriving at an exhibition-ready collection of animals had been fraught with difficulty and many breakages and glaze leaks so I was rather annoyed to be asked, by someone I had never met before, if I knew the difference between a Komodo dragon and a Gecko.  ‘As groups and collectivities become more self-conscious under conditions of social polarization, their members tend to claim unique or privileged access to certain kinds of knowledge. This can be described as the doctrine of the Insider, which includes the correlative claim that the Outsider has a structurally imposed incapacity for access to such knowledge.

Understanding the attitude of certain scientists is probably part of the armour of being an Art Scientist and by the end of the meeting interest was shown and offers of help in carrying boxes of ceramics to the exhibition. But this exchange illustrated the void that can exist between scientists not understanding the contribution that artists can make in communicating ideas visually and artists not understanding the science. In the meeting I also agreed to make another textured surface tile for the visitors to touch and feel what antibacterial surfaces are – rather than feel/break my ceramic animals.  An exciting aspect of the meeting was seeing how compatible my work was with Jessica Irwin’s antibacterial cartoon characters.  We both used clear, childlike forms and bright colours in our antibacterial work – this might even look like we planned it.

Communicating and networking with scientists from different universities

In my MA dissertation I am exploring how we memorialise disease with particular reference to HIV and AIDS and whether bacteria themselves have memories. Being somewhat out of my depth I arranged a joint meeting with Dr Leach, LJMU and Dr D’Sa, Liverpool University.  I had already been in contact with Dr Leach through emails and one to one meetings to benefit from his understanding on the nature of bacterial memory which is one of the underpinnings of Dr D’Sa’s antibacterial surface research.  Dr L:each’s input has been to give me invaluable  lessons in the theoretical background of bacteria which in turn has enhanced my ability to communicate these ideas in a more vivid way in ceramic and ultimately to them being displayed as part of the Light Night exhibition at LJMU.

Shark with antibacterial tiled macro surface

An explanation – but not the one I wanted 

Dr D’Sa explained that groups of bacteria communicate when they group together Biofilm this is nothing more glamorous than spit or the mucky bits in the bath that need cleaning. The bacteria (which can be in mixed communities) release molecules and associated bacteria in the biofilm do the same. Bacteria have evolved by their innate knowledge of the chemicals they need to release to enable this communication.  So my exciting idea of bacterial memory was over in the knowledge that what they are doing is communicating and not remembering.   Dr Leach is interested in developing a computational model based on Dr D’Sa’s antibacterial surfaces so it was not a wasted meeting, but I was disappointed because I felt that I might have discovered something new but in fact it was already very well known. As an artist I felt completely out of my depth talking to two such experience scientific minds. I am glad that I attempted this collaboration but am aware that my discovery was based on excitement and not hard research. This may be another useful lesson for an Art Scientist to learn early on. 

Final reflections

Art is science made clear said Jean Cocteau and I endeavour to follow this tenet and use my artistic practice to bring clarity to science and work closely with scientists to communicate new ideas and reach new understandings.  As an Art in Science MA student I am naturally drawn towards collaboration and to the notion of generating new ideas from disparate subjects.

As a ceramic artist utilising a truly ancient art form and material I felt that I was something of an anomaly in in Art Science practice and quite different from the other digital and fine art students on my course, but, recently finding that the revered art scientists Eleanor Crook and Paddy Hartley are fundamentally potters I cheered for other art scientists using clay to illuminate and communicate science.  Also, as a potter, you believe in the art of the Happy Accident – the glaze that accidentally turns out right, the ceramic form that unexpectedly works well and this applied to my project with Dr D’Sa. It just worked on all levels. This feels like it is just the right project.

…and the Antibacterial Animals Continue

Dr D’Sa is already so happy with my ceramic Antibacterial Animals that she wants to purchase all of them for her touring Antibacterial Avengers show.  I am immensely satisified that this is the outcome of this project and delighted that the ceramic animals will continue to collaborate.

Bibliography

  1. https://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/see-and-do/superbugs-fight-our-lives
  2. Insiders and Outsiders: A Chapter in the Sociology of Knowledge   Merton, R. K.   American Journal of Sociology https://www.jstor.org/stable/2776569?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

GREEN GECKO AND PROBLEMATIC GLAZES

Making Geckos has not turned out to be as easy as I thought it would. I learnt the hard way that the structure of the Geckos themselves with their dainty feet and limbs just allowed an over runny glaze to over run all over my kiln shelves. I learnt the hard way that the Gecko paws had to be more cartoon like and sturdy to cope with the glaze. In the end the glorious green glaze was abandoned and I used a mixture of opaque white in a first firing following by a Dragon Skin variegated yellow in the second firing. How laborious this has been, but worth it I think. The result is an almost ancient Chinese style glaze most desired by potters. But here is the story of the disaster to the final object with its glued on limb which could not be put on show.

Gecko just glazed and waiting for kiln firing

WHY WE NEED TO STOP BACTERIA GETTING TOGETHER

We are living at a time of enormous risk. Years of excessive use of antibiotics means that we are becoming antibacterial resistant. Unless we find either new antibiotics or a more radical way to cope with this problem we will no longer able to routinely use antibiotics in surgery. The simplest of procedures will become life threatening.


Dr DS’a an antibacterial engineer from Liverpool University is undertaking exciting research on creating hospital equipment, such as catheters, which have this microscopic dis-enabling surface.These inventions are a practical and natural way of stopping our over-reliance on antibiotics.

Dr D’Sa she explained that groups of bacteria communicate when they group together within Biofilm. Biofilm. is  nothing more glamorous than spit or the mucky bits in the bath that need cleaning. The bacteria (which can be in mixed communities) release molecules and associated bacteria in the Biofilm do the same. Bacteria have evolved by their innate knowledge of the chemicals they need to release to enable this communication.

MY FIRST LIGHT NIGHT MEETING

I had my first meeting with the LJMU and Liverpool University Light Night participants having already created most of my ceramic amphibians and sharks so I had something to show them. Although I knew that Dr D’Sa was happy with my work (having altered my Gecko spikes) I did not know how everyone else would react. and I felt quite protective of my ceramics in this scientific environment.

AT my first meeting I could only show rough copies of my work completed to date and the texture tile that I had designed to show visitors to the exhibition how the microscopic surfaces of these animals are inhospitable to bacteria and stop them colonising there and starting to infect.

Bacteria on the inhospitable environment of a shark’s tiled skin surface which stops them colonising and infecting


Bacteria unable to colonise on the spiky surface of a Gecko’s skin

The tiles were liked and to accommodate the potentially large number of visitors I agreed to make another set. These texture tiles will be attached to a heavy stand.

New texture tiles in the workshop before being attached to their support

But, by far the most exciting aspect of the meeting was seeing how compatible my work was with that of the Antibacterial Cartoonist also exhibiting. The clear, childlike forms and bright colour palettes of our art works very well together.