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Visualizing the unseen in nature

Penn's LabStudio installation 'Branching Morphogenesis' wins 2010 AAAS/NSF International Visualization Challenge Award

University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

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IMAGE:  "Branching Morphogenesis " is at Ars Electronica, a museum of digital and media arts, in Linz, Austria. view more

Credit: Jenny E. Sabin, M.Arch., Sabin+Jones LabStudio, University of Pennsylvania

PHILADELPHIA - Made from 75,000 interconnected cable zip-ties, "Branching Morphogenesis," simulates the predicted network generated by human lung cells as they interact with an extracellular matrix in three-dimensional space and time.

Designed and produced by the Sabin+Jones LabStudio at Penn, "Branching Morphogenesis" allows visitors to walk through a giant three-dimensional "datascape," encapsulating the way in which human endothelial cells interact with their surrounding extracellular matrix, a type of connective tissue. The installation has won the 2010 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge award, co-sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Foundation. An image of "Branching Morphogenesis" will be on the cover of the February 19th issue of Science.

Co-Directors of LabStudio, Peter Lloyd Jones, Ph.D., associate professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the School of Medicine and lecturer in Architecture, and Jenny E. Sabin, M.Arch. lecturer in Architecture, School of Design, led the team, along with LabStudio colleagues Andrew Lucia, M.Arch. and Annette Fierro, M.Arch. in the School of Design. LabStudio is a research and design unit based within Penn's Institute for Medicine and Engineering and the School of Design.

"Branching Morphogenesis, 12-feet high, 15-feet wide, and eight-feet in depth, is made up of five vertical sheets representing phases in time during the formation of branched networks of blood vessels. Visitors can walk through the exhibit, immersing themselves within a newly created organic network.

"Our collaboration is not about borrowing from each others' disciplines, nor is it about mimicking nature," says Jones. "Rather, it is about the production of new modes of collaboration, thinking, working and creating. "

"We hope this prize will inspire others to take similar risks," says Sabin.

"Overall, and as a somewhat extreme and large-scale example, 'Branching Morphogenesis' challenges our pre-existing notions as to how complex biological information can be displayed and understood," explains Jones, a cell and developmental biologist who studies the extracellular matrix in lung development, vascular disease, and breast cancer. "'Branching Morphogenesis' not only reveals the inherent beauty and complexity of cell-extracellular matrix interactions that occur during capillary formation within the lung, but it also aims to illustrate the underlying, formerly unseen, physical forces that drive this process during development and disease."

"Our applied work in architectural design is informed by many areas, including textiles and experimental structures, music, computation, and cell biology," explains Sabin, an architectural designer who specializes in design computation. "Through the hybridization of these interests, we investigate transformations in geometry, form, and materials over time and in space at the scale of cells to complex geometries and products, structures, and forms and finally at the scale of building. Here, the art and science of design-to-production is conceptualized, theorized and tooled through biologically informed models."

"One realization of the ongoing collaboration within LabStudio is the recognition that whether we are operating as biologists or designers, we are all bound to deal with matter, time, and their effects. In this regard, 'Branching Morphogenesis' succeeds at both the scientific and design levels, not only because it was generated through rigorous scientific investigation and design computation, but also because it's human scale requires the visitor to simultaneously occupy both of our worlds. This under-explored philosophical territory residing between our fields is where we believe the most fertile ideas will arise in collaborations such as our own," explains Jones.

"Within LabStudio, we develop a diverse array of tools and models from advanced digital techniques to analog modules like the cable zip-tie. The seemingly banal qualities of our selected building unit, play a significant didactic role - through adaptation and recontextualization - as hybrid material systems that recapitulate the power of cell biological phenomena into different formal and architectural constructs -- that by association foster new readings and interpretations of seemingly intangible datasets. In a collaborative environment composed of architects and cell biologists, we are challenged by the following question: How do we intuit, see and understand complex wholes that are often indiscernible from their individual parts? 'Branching Morphogenesis' addresses this question by serving as an interface for disseminating and materializing research data, research in progress and research methods to diverse audiences through an architectural and scientific intervention that exists at multiple length-scales," explains Sabin.

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First exhibited at Siggraph 2008 in Los Angeles, "Branching Morphogenesis" is currently on display in the FutureLab at Ars Electronica, a museum of digital and media arts, in Linz, Austria through September 2010.

For a slide show of "Branching Morphogenesis," visit www.sabin-jones.com

Penn Medicine is one of the world's leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $3.6 billion enterprise.

Penn's School of Medicine is currently ranked #3 in U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools, and is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $367.2 million awarded in the 2008 fiscal year.

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