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Science or art? U. research featured in museum in Europe

SALT LAKE CITY — Great scientists, Vaiva Kulbokaite will argue, have often been great artists.

There's a way of seeing the world — abstract and beautiful — that leads to discovery.

As a student, the Lithuanian-born Kulbokaite often found herself wondering how the world came to look the way it did — why the sky was blue, why the leaves were green. After flirting with the idea of studying art, Kulbokaite went on to get a master’s in biophysics and instead started a nonprofit in Lithuania that promoted the intersection of art and science.

When she moved to the U.S. earlier this year to join her husband, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Utah, Kulbokaite found a kindred spirit in U. cell biologist Jody Rosenblatt, who last year asked students to submit images from their research and organized a contest called Research as Art.

Now, the images and videos are being shown in the National Gallery of Art in Lithuania.

"It's very exciting for a small country," said Kulbokaite, who is a program supervisor at The Leonardo.

Rosenblatt, who studies cell division and what happens when that goes haywire and causes cancer, said she's happy the students' research efforts are being promoted internationally.

The scientifically minded daughter of two artistic parents who painted and blew glass, Rosenblatt has often thought the cancerous cells under her microscope had a savage beauty.

"People can see the natural world — they can see the leaves turning in the fall — but there’s all this stuff that happens in our research that’s really beautiful that people have no idea exists,” she said. “I thought we’d kind of lift the cover up on that and give people an idea of all the really great research that’s going on at the U.”

When Rosenblatt organized the Research as Art contest last year, she received 80 submissions from places she "didn't even know existed.”

Many of them have an eerie beauty: An alien tangle of fibers is really the surface of a lavender plant, zoomed in; an array of blue-gray fragments are really bird's-eye photos of the Bonneville Salt Flats, zoomed out. Jewel-like images that evoke the work of Gustav Klimt are, in fact, dyed slices of esophageal tissue.

"That's why I was attracted to science,” Kulbokaite said. “It seems that nature itself is a huge artist."

James Colovos, a doctorate student in mechanical engineering at the U., submitted an image that showed a tungsten plate striking a porous rock at 10 times the speed of sound in a computer simulation.

As the pixels shattered and sheared upon impact, Colovos watched as they twisted into an ocean wave.

"I had to stop and capture it because it was the first time in doing all this research — and I've made hundreds of these simulations — that I saw this wave,” said Colovos, whose research involves simulating explosions to improve oil and gas exploration processes.

The simulation took 512 processors at the Center for High Performance Computing a day to run, he said.

For a guy who studies physical matter all day, every day, Colovos has been thinking a lot about things that he can't see or feel.

Before the scientific revolution and advanced mathematics, “these big scientists were all philosophers and alchemists, and there was nothing wrong with that," he said. "So metaphysics was kind of the beginning of the real physics before we could do these experiments to prove things."

Now, funnily enough, he’s using computer simulations to prove things about rock and steel.

Colovos said thinking about his work more artistically has allowed him to "break away from my desk and start to describe what I'm working on" to non-engineers. He's given out dozens of prints of the "Tungsten Wave" as gifts, and "everybody's loving them," he said.

Kulbokaite has started a Facebook page for other Utahns interested in the intersection of science and art. She wants to get the message out to young students that science isn't just about numbers and formulas — it's creative and artistic, too.

Rosenblatt said she hopes to organize a second Research as Art contest in the spring.

Even in her work — studying how normal cells sometimes turn into cancerous tumors — she’s found beauty. Recently, Rosenblatt and researchers in her lab discovered that epithelial cells fight the formation of tumors by ejecting older cells and causing them to die when they get too crowded.

They start to do this, Rosenblatt said, when the cells are 1.6 times more crowded than normal.

That number — 1.618, or thereabouts — is known as the "golden ratio." It's famous for being ubiquitous in math, nature and art, obeyed everywhere from the measurements of a pentagon to the spiraling seed patterns of certain flowers and plants.

It was kind of beautiful, Rosenblatt thought. That's an aspect of her work, she said, that "nobody really gets except artists.”


Twitter: DaphneChen_