A yellow ceramic sculpture reminiscent of lumpy artisan bread, is full of bumps and nooks, graces the office of Randy Stockbridge, a structural biologist in MCDB.
The sculpture is a representation of the FLuc-Ec2 protein and was created by Michal Ruprecht ,then an undergraduate researcher in the Stockbridge lab. A neuroscience honors student, Ruprecht made the sculpture in a U-M ceramics class that he had wanted to take ever since entering the U-M.
The sculpture is also a salvo in Michal Ruprecht’s efforts to counteract misinformation about science.
The FLuc-Ec2 protein is a bacterial membrane protein that cells use to export fluoride ions to prevent them from building up in the cell. As its name implies, the protein opens a channel through the bacterial membrane to allow the fluoride ions to leave the cell. The Stockbridge lab is delving deeply into understanding these microbial export systems—knowledge that could help understand bacterial resistance to antibiotics, for example.
In an innovative way to convey an appreciation for science to non-specialists, Ruprecht made three sculptures of the protein to illustrate his senior thesis, entitled “X-ray crystal structure and anion selectivity features of the E. Coli Fluoride (Fluc) channel.” He displayed them with his science poster at the annual undergraduate poster session in 2022.
“While most ion channels are composed of one main unit, Flucs have two,” he explains. “Through this series, my goal was to communicate the protein’s unique structure to the general public.”
Connecting art to science
“I first learned about connecting art with science from my U-M ceramics professor, Susan Crowell,” says Ruprecht. He was inspired to enroll in her course after seeing Hidden Worlds: The Universe of Pollen Revealed in Large-scale Ceramic Sculptures, an exhibition at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens in 2016, of ceramic pollen sculptures. She based her structures on electron microscope images of pollen.
“Although Prof. Crowell may not be traditionally thought of as a scientist, her artwork shed light on the plight of bees (Anthophila), which are one of many species negatively affected by climate change (Soroye et al., 2020).”
For his own ceramics, he says, “my goal is to highlight the beauty of Fluc channels through an examination of the intricacies of nature.”
His sculpture has its origins in Ruprecht’s work in 2020 when the Stockbridge lab solved the crystal structure of the protein, working remotely because of Covid restrictions on campus. In 2021, he returned to the Stockbridge lab to learn more about how the protein functioned. With the mentorship of Prof. Stockbridge and Benjamin McIlwain, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab, he was able to coauthor on a paper in fluoride exporters in the Annual Review of Biochemistry. "Without their generous time and support, I wouldn't be where I am today," he says.
In 2022 for his thesis project, he first made a 3D model of the protein. “Since the structure is 3D, I knew it would be difficult to model it with clay if I only had a 2D printout.” He got 3-D printing tips from MCDB microbiologist Anthony Vecchiarelli and then turned to the Shapiro Design Lab of the University Library. “The design lab is free for all students and they allowed me to print out my design!”
“After I sculpted the proteins, I had to hollow each of them out. Doing this protects the structure during the firing process in the kiln. I also had to add small holes in each ‘hilly’ area of the protein to avoid cracks. The small holes aren’t present in the actual structure of the protein.”
Then he had to add a coat of color. “Most people are familiar with glaze as a coloring technique. I used engobe, which is a different type of way to color ceramics.”
“We were on a very strict schedule for the ceramics project. We had about two weeks to finish everything, including the glazing.”
Better Science Communication
His knack for explaining science extends beyond the ceramics lab. Neuroscientist Monica Dus praises his contributions to her MCDB 421 class’s podcasts explaining neuroepigenetics. He also has interned for ABC News, MedPage Today and The Nation's Health, and was a reporter for The Michigan Daily.
Ruprecht graduated in 2022 is now a second year medical student at Wayne State University.
He continues to keep his keyboard at the ready as a freelance journalist to craft health and science articles that challenge our thinking, aiming to “deliver disruptive medical journalism that leads to improved scientific and medical understanding.”
He sums up his motivation to explore art as part of science communication on his website: “Science misinformation has rapidly spread throughout America, oftentimes fueled by social media, elected officials, and conspiracy theorists. All Americans — including the youth — are struggling to decipher real facts from fabricated lies. To put it simply, Americans have been let down by institutions that should have cared more. Thus, developing better methods of science communication is vital.”
You can see more of his ceramics and read his journalism pieces at https://michalruprecht.com/
Neuroepic podcast for MCDB 421
Annual Review of Biochemistry paper:
Benjamin C. McIlwain,1 Michal T. Ruprecht,1 and Randy B. Stockbridge
Vol. 90:559-579 (Volume publication date June 2021) First published as a Review in Advance on January 25, 2021
Assistant Professor of Molecular,Cellular, and Developmental Biology
Professor of Art, Residential College & the Penny Stamps School of Art and Design.
Still on display at Matthaei are three sculptures of pollen collected from the 80-year-old agave that bloomed in 2014. Crowell made them based on scanning electron microscope images of the pollen taken by the U-M Hospitals imaging lab. You can see them in the Arid House climate area.