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Discover: This LU researcher blends science and art to create anatomical masterpieces

Ive Velikova sits down with local artist and researcher Amanda Durkin

Amanda Durkin isn’t your typical researcher. As a PhD student at Laurentian University, she is developing a drug to treat diseases caused by inflammation, such as rheumatoid arthritis. When she leaves the lab, she returns to her art studio to create anatomical masterpieces.

Durkin’s journey to art started with the Laurentian University SciArt Exhibition in 2015. Each year, the exhibition showcases pieces created by elementary and high school students, LU faculty and students, and members of the community. The diverse range of art includes paintings, short films, poetry, fashion, sculpture, and photography. Each masterpiece connects to a scientific field — for Durkin, that was human anatomy.

“I drew an anatomical heart on a textbook page,” Durkin explains. “I had it in a shadow box with a glass cover, and I painted an ECG (electrocardiogram) line on it.” That year, her piece won first place at the SciArt Exhibition.

Over the next few years, community support for her art grew. Her organ illustrations were intricate, impactful, and personal. “Some people have emotional ties to organs,” Durkin shares. “People who had an organ removed and they want an image of it or [...] an organ they had a disease in that they overcame, as a tribute to how strong that organ is.”

Inspired by the positive reception to her art, Drukin launched the AmandatomicalArt Etsy shop, selling prints, enamel pins, stickers, and greeting cards.

“I base my images on ancient anatomy textbooks that I’m slightly obsessed with,” Durkin explains. One of her inspirations is Leonardo da Vinci. “He did a lot of anatomical drawings that were very spot on for what they knew at the time.” Looking at her pieces, you truly feel like you’ve entered the study of an ancient anatomist.

When she began creating art, Durkin had no idea that there was an entire community of people sharing the creative side of science through illustration, animation, and design. The #SciArt hashtag on Instagram or Twitter reveals thousands of artists showcasing their masterpieces.

Two Photon Art funds small grants for artists and writers by selling art. Gaius J Augustus helps researchers tell science stories through illustration and multimedia. The London Natural History Museum opens their doors to photographers in their annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. Scientists around the world are finding beauty beyond the lab, field, or software they use to make their discoveries.

When she’s not creating art, Durkin works at the Health Sciences North Research Institute. She studies a drug initially created to treat cancer. However, she discovered that it works even better as an anti-inflammatory drug. Inflammation is our body’s response to harmful bacteria, viruses and physical damage.

Most of us have experienced swelling or redness after a bug bite or injury. Typically, this is a healthy response. “You need inflammation to get rid of infections or a bacterial intruder that comes in your body,” explains Durkin. “But when that inflammation gets dysregulated, that’s how you end up with autoimmune diseases.”

There are more than 100 autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and inflammatory bowel disease. For the millions of people living with these conditions, their immune system attacks healthy cells in their body. The drug Durkin is developing has the potential to treat these conditions.

Art has been a great way for Durkin to balance rigorous lab work with a creative outlet she enjoys. Her stunning pieces show that there is more to science than meets the eye.

“Some people don’t appreciate the beauty of what organs are,” Durkin shares. “The idea of drawing an organ on a textbook page was to bring back the beauty of what the organ does but also tie it back to what the parts do.”

You can shop for Amanda Durkin’s anatomical art on Etsy.

Ive Velikova is a science communication student at Laurentian University and the host of the Science Sucks podcast. You can find the podcast on Stitcher and other podcast sites.

Source: Autoimmune Disease List. (2018). American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association.


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