Conveying principles of embryonic development by metaphors from daily life
How can the revolution in our understanding of embryonic development and stem cells be conveyed to the general public? The project presents a photographic approach to highlight scientific concepts of pattern formation using metaphors from daily life, displaying pairs of images of embryonic development and the corresponding human analogy. By making the viewer ‘feel’ like a cell within a developing embryo, the personal experiences resonate with the scientific concepts, facilitating a new type of appreciation.
The field of developmental biology has undergone a revolution in the past three decades. The conserved signaling pathways cells use to communicate with each other during embryogenesis have been elucidated. Recent technological developments include sophisticated genetic tools to interrogate the roles of genes in distinct tissues and specific time windows in a wide range of organisms, as well as new imaging technologies for the dynamic visualization of developmental processes at subcellular resolution. Finally, the identification of stem cells in different organs, and increasing understanding of the means by which these cells differentiate, brings hope that we might be able to recapitulate these processes for regenerative therapies.
This revolution affects us as scientists on a daily basis, but also has wider implications to every human being: from the understanding of how we are formed from embryos and how similar we are to other multicellular organisms, to the medical applications of this knowledge. When asking if the public is aware of these issues, I am disappointed to say that the answer to this question is no. This is mainly because existing channels to communicate these ideas are not sufficient, rather than reflecting a lack of interest in the topic. Any effort in broadening and enhancing public understanding of developmental biology is thus extremely important.
One challenge in presenting science in a popular way is the limited background knowledge of the audience. The presentation, be it a lecture, movie or article, tends to flow in only one direction: the expert ‘takes the audience by the hand’ and guides them through the scientific paradigms presented. By contrast, developing a dialog, whereby the audience would be able to resonate their own life experiences with the new scientific knowledge, might enhance the understanding of the principles and make the process more interactive and intuitive.
The cell is the basic unit in a developing organism, and it is the interaction between cells that drives the orderly process of embryonic development. In many respects, this concept can be compared to a human society, in which rules, communication and interactions between individuals lead to the intricate organization at the physical and social levels. By basing a popular presentation on such an analogy, the audience immediately becomes actively involved. People can identify themselves with the developing cells and this association allows them to ‘feel’ the processes from a personal point of view. Interestingly, Robert Hooke first coined the term ‘cell’ in a biological context in 1665 as an analogy to the human world: the cell walls of an oak tree bark under his microscope reminded him of the cells of monks.
How can this analogy be elaborated and presented? In our research, we generate microscopic images that are not only highly informative to the researcher but also exceptionally beautiful. Yet, in the absence of sufficient background knowledge, these images can be largely meaningless to the general public. I have considered the prospects of utilizing such scientific images more effectively for public education, by using them as a tool for presenting analogies between the biological microscopic world and the macroscopic human one. Concentrating on common underlying principles between the two worlds, our intuitive understanding of the human world can be harnessed in order to grasp scientific paradigms of embryonic development.
Lectures & Links
Benny Shilo, Radcliffe Fellow is a developmental biologist, who has put together a project combining scientific photos with photos of people in analogous settings that is intended to explain concepts in developmental biology. Here he is seen in his Byerly Hall at Harvard University. Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer
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