Lately I've been getting requests for artwork to be given as gifts, which is something that I never would have even thought to offer as a service, but it is such a great idea. In this Etsy era of handmade personalized gifts, what's more personal than a gift that celebrates someone's specific contributions to science? While I was wondering why I never thought of this before, I realized that I've sort of been doing it for years. For instance I often draw Valentine's Day cards that are based on the science that the hubs is doing at the time. I remember one card during his postdoc that read, "Roses are red, Violets are blue, If you were a phosphotyrosine, I would be SH2." Or something like that. It never occurred to me that this could be done on a larger scale.
One recent request came from the wife of a researcher at HHMI's Janelia Research Campus. He had published a paper in Science and was about to be promoted to group leader. She wanted something special to mark these exciting (and apparently unrelated) events, and thought that some original artwork for his new office would be just the thing. So I read the Science paper, which is about a calcium-binding fluorescent protein they designed that can detect activation of neurons by their change in calcium concentration. Upon action potential firing, calcium ions barge into the cell, and that leads to a shift from green to red fluorescence of the protein when hit with a certain wavelength of light. Using this probe, they were able to image the whole brain in mice, flies, and, remarkably, freely swimming zebrafish larvae. They saw specific regions of the brain lighting up when the organisms did things like smell an aromatic compound, "hear" a specific vibrational frequency, or have to process the changing directions of a grating. I assume the last one lights up the part of the brain that gets activated when I have to look at a map upside down. Actually I think the portion of my brain that is supposed to carry out that function has been replaced by recordings of Yakety Sax, aka the Benny Hill theme song. Anyway, this calcium-sensing protein is called calcium-modulated photoactivatable ratiometric integrator, or CaMPARI, which is also a popular red-colored liqueur known for its bitter flavor. When I started looking at some old posters for Campari the aperitif, I came across the original 1920's poster depicting a clown inside of an orange peel holding a bottle of Campari. The orange peel reminded me of the structure of CaMPARI, so I thought it would be funny if the clown was replaced with a cute little zebrafish larva and the orange peel by the actual protein structure. You can't really tell in this image, but the original clown has white polka dots on his red pajamas. These were replaced by neurons on the zebrafish (my client's idea). Most of them are green, but in a few small regions they are lighting up red. The recipient of this bizarre parody found it in his new office alongside a card with the original poster image as shown below. I was relieved to hear that he was quite pleased with it.
In another project, the sister of a soon-to-be assistant professor of polymer science and engineering contacted me to commission a piece of artwork for her brother's new office. His work has two main themes. One is optically functional polymers, so for example, a polymer that can take light and convert it to a higher frequency. The other is stimuli-responsive materials, or polymers (generally) that change properties (ie. color, local concentration of a molecule, etc.) when stimulated with something like light, mechanical stress, etc. Interestingly, the sister who hired me is a Ph.D. biochemist. I am working on tracking down the parents for their playbook.
I have two more of these possibly in the works and I hope it catches on. It's fun to be a part of such a thoughtful gesture. I am inspired to up my game this Christmas.