Art for science’s sake – artistic depictions of scientific research; Lewis Calver

Art for science’s sake – artistic depictions of scientific research; Lewis Calver – column

Gilbert L. Rogin

Elucidating the intricacies of science is one of our goals, and in pursuit of it we have no more valuable allies than the medical illustrators whose work appears on our pages. Consider the se- ries of paintings (pages 37-45) that accompany this month’s Special Report on cancer. The workings of interferon, monoclonal antibodies, and inter leukin are complex even to oncologists, but in the skilled hands of artist Lewis Calver, they become comprehensible to laymen. Calver, 38, an associate professor and the director of biomedical illustration graduate studies at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Dallas, is a leading practitioner of one of the most exclusive subspecialties in medicine. There are only half a dozen accredited programs in medical illustration in the U.S., and Texas accepts just six students a year for a master’s degree.

As a rule, those who enroll have majored in art and minored in biology as undergraduates, an unusual combination of interests but one that Calver has had since childhood. He started as a pre-med student at the University of Michigan, discovered he preferred painting, transferred to the university’s art school, and realized, ”as if fate were with me, that Michigan was one of the handful of institutions with a degree in medical illustration.”

Calver has been on the faculty at Texas for a decade, has servedon the board of governors of the Association of Medical Illustrators, and has won a number of blue ribbons for his work, which generally takes a lot of time to produce. The cancer project for DISCOVER began with a series of lengthy meetings with Texas faculty members, after which Calver did preliminary sketches. They were sent here for review by doctors at Sloan-Kettering and the National Cancer Institute, and then returned to Dallas, where Calver again conferred with medical researchers before doing his paintings. This sort of attention to detail is habitual with him, and tends to result in seven-day work weeks. But it also gives him immense satisfaction. ”I’m always trying to present very complex information,” Calver says, ”but without oversimplifying it. It’s much more difficult to convey concepts to a layman, but it’s also much more rewarding.”

New forms of medical illustration are helping Calver in his quest for clarity. University of Texas Nobel laureates Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein recently came to him because they were overwhelmed with requests for information about their discovery of how certain receptors control absorption of cholesterol. They proposed that Calver create a video tape using computer animation. The two biologists ”had studied this process for years by examining electron micrographs one at a time,” Calver says, ”but even they had never seen the cycle of cholesterol uptake actually move. When I showed them the film, their mouths just dropped open.”

And to Calver, this is what the future of his field is all about. Whether work- ing with an airbrush for DISCOVER or using computer graphics, he feels he’s

”not just cleaning up anatomy any more. We’re exploring science that no one has ever seen, and presenting it as a whole new concept.”

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