Last week, BioSurplus had an opportunity to sit down with Janet Hubka, founder of ilus art, to talk about her innovative cellular artwork and STEAM initiative advocacy.
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Every question begins with curiosity. Every answer begins with imagination. In a universe of limitless potential and possibilities, the most revolutionary discoveries come from the most inquisitive and boundless minds.
ilus art (pronounced ee-loos) aims to awaken that curiosity through molecular and microscopic art from the most innovative, cutting-edge biological research. Scientists from all over the United States contribute images taken in the course of their research to ilus art to share their progress and breakthroughs with a wider, general audience. Although ilus art has expanded to support STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) education and win prestigious art contests, it all began when Janet Hubka stumbled upon her husband’s desktop screensaver.
“I thought it was peacock feathers, but it was actually [stained] skin cells,” Janet explains. “So I said, ‘Well, I like your screensaver, Mark. How about I just print out a copy on canvas at Kinko’s? I’ll just do it fast and get a couple pictures.'”
Her husband, Dr. Mark Hubka of Histogen, was happy to share the images and quickly referred her to other researchers within the company for even more. A few days later, she had filled their office space with canvases of their microscopic images.
“It wasn’t a business at this point; it was a favor,” Janet says. That all changed when a friend started a business infusing images into metal and achieved vibrancy unlike anything she could replicate on canvas. “It wasn’t until I saw it printed on metal that I was like, ‘Huh, this could be something.'”
Slowly, Janet began developing these “favors” into a business as she systemized the metal infusion process, gathered more artwork, and worked with a family friend in branding and marketing. Then, in 2014, she got her big break when Biocom, a massive network of biotech and STEM organizations, requested submissions for an art exhibit in San Diego International Airport. ilus‘ three submissions turned into a 20-image exhibit posted for 7 months; however, they were not able to include plaques with information on the images.
“I thought [the background story] was important to know!” Janet says. “If you see the Mona Lisa, we’ve all seen that over and over. If you’ve seen a beautiful landscape, you can say ‘that’s cool, but it would be really nice to know what the artist’s inspiration is.’ But, for science art, it’s hugely important for the non-scientists to know what it is.”
Full STEAM ahead
Thankfully, Janet was able to spread the message through QR codes next to the pictures, leading viewers to their website for scientist and research information. It was through this outreach that she started hearing from teachers wanting to implement the STEAM initiative in their schools. In response, Janet developed a not-for-profit branch program, ilus art and education.
“With the idea of STEM, more and more, they’re considering themselves STEAM schools,” Janet explains. Upon being asked about the influence of art included in the curriculum, Janet commented on how art and music are universal, even to science. STEAM is a relatively new concept, but adding that fifth element to the curriculum opens more opportunities in science that youth may not have considered before.
“A lot of kids, I’d say when they’re under 3rd grade, you say ‘how many of you are interested in being a scientist someday?’ and every little hand goes up. Doctor, computer engineer, fireman, policeman, teacher, an artist? Every hand, all the time. You know, I think they can be one thing on the weekend and another on a weekday,” she jokes.
“But, in middle school, definitely by 5th or 6th grade on up, a lot of kids have started to pigeon-hole themselves. Sometimes for good reasons like ‘I’m really good at math so I’m going to do something in the math field.’ Sometimes for bad reasons like ‘I’m terrible at math.’ So, if you say [to them] ‘how many of you want to be a computer engineer or a programmer or a scientist or a doctor or an artist or a teacher?’ then you’re looking more at 50-50.”
Adding art to the field opens up the dialogue. “Then if you say, ‘how many of you are good at computer games?’ every hand, even if it’s in a school where the families might be economically challenged, somehow they have something… that they play and they’re good at it. So we always make it a point to show the slides of a [laboratory] up at [University of California, San Francisco] that… hires gamers and kids, even straight out of high school… who are really good at computers or game systems, and they are helping him develop games for his neurologically-challenged patients.” She smiles. “So I can say, ‘you can be anything!'”
So far, ilus art and education has been able to secure summer internships for three students since they started school presentations. Each school receives three pieces of artwork as well as any additional gift from a sponsoring company. At two recent donations, BioSurplus also provided Vista Vision microscopes for each school’s developing science departments.
“We’re thankful for the opportunity to participate and share in this special event,” says Octavio Espinosa, Vice President of Sales, Auctions, and Marketing Operations for BioSurplus. “In talking with the principal and board members, [ilus art] is doing a fantastic job of inspiring young minds to do great things. We’re very privileged to offer our support to educators and students alike. We’re excited to see how far ilus will go.”
I’m doing this for Madelyn!
Reaching a wider, non-scientific audience is one of the reasons Janet feels comfortable speaking about science.
“Most people probably don’t think that I would be the right choice to be talking about regenerative medicine, to be talking about cells and tissue engineering,” Janet admits. “but, my thought was ‘who better to share it with people who speak my language than me?’ Scientists don’t speak everybody’s language. It’s a little bit above most of us.”
Although ilus art currently focuses on metal canvases and STEAM outreach, they recently developed a line of puzzles (“Science You Can Play With”) and are looking to print cellular images on fabric. The organization is most active in California, but Janet sees the need to expand both their website and presentations to states without biotech hubs.
“The important part for me is sharing [the website] because we have these little people … growing up in a generation where technology will just be everything in education as they go forward,” Janet explains. “I want Madelyn, [my granddaughter in Texas], to know there’s room for her in science.”
Her motivation can truly be summed up in one exclamation:
“I’m doing this for Madelyn!”
If you would like to purchase artwork, sponsor a school presentation, or have Janet speak at your school, contact ilus art at http://ilusart.com/contact/.