stem cells in their environment

Behind The Curtain

May 2019

by Jessica Sells, Public Engagement Officer for the CSCRM

Artist Maria Andrews and PhD student Ana-Maria Cujba are partners in "Illuminations", the sci-art collaboration taking place between scientists from the Centre for Stem Cells & Regenerative Medicine at KCL, Imperial College London and artists from Chisenhale Studios.

Last week, the CSCRM had a lovely visit from Maria Andrews. As part of her work with Ana-Maria, she is getting footage of her in the lab working on her PhD which is researching Monogenic Diabetes using organoids (clusters of stem cells that create mini organs used to investigate certain conditions). Joining Maria was her talented daughter Molly who sketched the whole process taking place. During this visit, Ana-Maria was training other students and colleagues using a confocal microscope, a microscope that illuminates cell samples at high resolution with fluorescent light. Read on to hear how each partner experienced the session...


'Ana-Maria is teaching. We are all women in the room learning to use a Leica microscope paired with computer software. A whole room is dedicated to this. So we know that it is important. The room is split by a curtain. On the other side equally important machines will do other things. But here on this side of the curtain the focus of attention is on samples and their illumination. The language is complex, too complex for me to grasp, for my daughter too, so we let it wash over us as if we are on a very gentle shoreline. My daughter is beside me. She observes and then draws. I film, my tripod bulky and cumbersome in this small space. I switch between lenses, from macro to wider. The fluorescent light will strobe lines on my footage, will cast it too probably. I am absorbed. The atmosphere is the kind that only happens in the calmest of environments led for females by females. When time is needed to really see, to spend time looking through the glass, the time is there, all the time in the world, time opens up. Time is a gentle endeavour. Time is a gentle handling of a fragile thing. Holding something in our attention as tiny as a sample is like holding a tiny bird in the hand. I am taken aback by the holding, the act of holding the opening up of time and space: Ana-Maria holding the group in her hands, the dials turning gently to arrive slowly, to match time and space and our attention, Ana- Maria’s colleague holding the silence, absorbed in her looking. I am reminded of matter changing because we witness it, was it Einstein who said that, an element of relativity? The quality of looking is a thing that stands out, stands alone from this space as a strong character, a strong presence. Its almost sculptural in time and space. A sculptor would be the one to transmit this feeling, transpose it with integrity. Maybe that is what Leica has made, a sculpture, that takes up half a room, behind a curtain.'


‘It was a new experience to teach confocal fluorescence microscopy to my fellow colleagues, while being filmed and sketched. It was so interesting to see that the artists Maria Andrews and her daughter Molly, have a complementary, exciting and different way to observe what for us, researchers, is routine. It felt that there are so many dimensions to observe clusters of cells that we call ‘organoids’ under the microscope, with a group formed by scientists and artists watching me. It was so fulfilling to see that my research colleagues grasp the concepts so easily and teaching is effective. It always feels good to help and share the knowledge, for me this is one of the most thrilling parts of being a scientist. Nowadays, the novel community formed by scientist colleagues and collaborating artists revive the feeling that science discovery is a piece of real art and has always been so’

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