Arts

Look closer! These photos reveal the beauty — and dark side — of stem cells

Artist/scientist Radha Chaddah explores the unseen world that’s all around (and inside) us.

Artist/scientist Radha Chaddah explores the unseen world that’s all around (and inside) us

Detail of Awakening by Radha Chaddah, a fluorescent micrograph of neural cells grown from human skin. (Courtesy of the artist)

I don't suppose there's such a thing as experiencing déjà vu for the days of the primordial muck, but looking at one of Radha Chaddah's microscopic photographs might offer something sort of kind of close to it. I found myself stopping short at the artist's booth during the Artist Project fair in Toronto this past February — and to be fair, her work's typified by giant, abstract bursts electric red and blue and green, dazzling enough to distract a prehistoric speck of blue algae. But I like to tell myself that the real reason I stopped was because I knew, instantly, what I was looking at — even though I don't have the B.Sc. that you'd need to properly identify it. 

The magic, I think, is when they realize, 'That's a part of me. That's what I'm made of.'- Radha Chaddah, artist

Chaddah grows, and photographs, colonies of cells. Awakening, her 2012 series that's appearing May 10 to 22 as part of Toronto's Contact Photography Festival, features large-scale prints of neurons and astrocytes and neural cell bodies, everything glowing in fluorescent, Christmas tree colours through a technique that's typically used by scientists to identify their parts.

But her microscopic models began as something else entirely. Usually, they started as embryonic stem cells, of either the human or mouse variety. Chaddah might spend two months cultivating the perfect subjects in a University of Toronto lab before they're ready for their closeup.

Radha Chaddah. Distant Nebula, 2012. Fluorescent micrograph of neurons grown from human skin. (Courtesy of the artist)

And when viewers clue into what, exactly, they're seeing, Chaddah says she gets to witness a "magic moment."

"The magic, I think, is when they realize, 'That's a part of me. That's what I'm made of. That's what I look like,'" she says. Per the title, it's an awakening of sorts to the unseen world that's all around (and inside) us. "They're so shocked! And infinitely curious."

Origin of the series

Chaddah, on some level, has got to relate to that feeling, since it's curiosity that led her to do a masters degree in cell and molecular neurobiology in the late aughts — an unexpected next step for someone who'd just wrapped an undergrad in art history and film. She was fascinated by stem cell research at the time — "enthralled," to use her word. (Her sister's in the field and her dad's a physician. "They'd have these great conversations that I wanted to be a part of," she says.)

Spending time researching in the lab, though, she found herself thinking of future art projects. The genesis of Awakening, which is her first series of cell photos, happened when she was logging time in a microscope room, practicing the Immunohistochemistry process — the same imaging technique that she's adapted for her photos.

"I was supposed to be there collecting data, and it utterly amazed me — I was stunned by what I was seeing," she says, talking about the beauty she saw under the microscope.

"All of a sudden I knew: this is my exit from science back to art. I always knew I wanted to put those two things together, but I didn't know how."

'I love the magic, but there's a deeper story'

Chaddah is still a research associate at the U of T, an arrangement that allows her to use the institutions' lab equipment for her practice. And like the photos in Awakening, most of her projects aim to spark some curiosity about science and ourselves. "I really am into exploring the sort of unseen world and surprising people with it," she says, but she hopes that viewers stick around for more than the spectacle of a microscopic form blown up at 40 by 60 inches.

"I love the magic, but there's a deeper story," she says. Her decision to use stem cells is deliberate, and the photo titles obliquely hint at some of the issues surrounding that hot topic. Several titles speak to the major gaps in knowledge that still exist — the fact that it's still unclear how existing research might be applied to medicine. (Lacuna, the title of this piece, literally means "gap.")

Radha Chaddah. Lacuna, 2012. Astrocytes differentiated from adult mouse neural stem cells. (Courtesy of the artist)

"Stem cells are amazing — there's this promise of regenerative medicine — but there are darker aspects to this story too," she says. On one side, you have headlines like this one from last month — the story of an Edmonton woman who became the first Canadian adult to be cured of sickle cell anemia. On the other, private clinics that sell unproven and unregulated stem-cell treatments are proliferating, potentially putting more than patients' finances at risk.

"I always want to draw people in with beauty," says Chaddah, and if they're inspired to seek out answers to the questions the work leaves them with, so much the better — whether they're curious to learn the number of cell types in the body (about 200), or the number of stem-cell therapies approved by Health Canada (one — for childhood cancer complications).

"Some people just want to be touched by something beautiful. Some people want to understand what's underneath."

Take a look.

Radha Chaddah. Flame, 2012. Fluorescent micrograph of astrocytes grown from human skin. (Courtesy of the artist)
Radha Chaddah. Awakening, 2012. Fluorescent micrograph of neural cells grown from human skin. (Courtesy of the artist)
Radha Chaddah. Ghost in the Machine, 2012. Fluorescent micrograph of neural stem cells grown from human embryonic stem cells. (Courtesy of the artist)
Radha Chaddah. Sleeping Beauty, 2012. Neurons grown from human skin. (Courtesy of the artist)
Radha Chaddah. Tag, 2012. Neural cells grown from human skin. (Courtesy of the artist)
Radha Chaddah. Peacock, 2012. Neural stem cells grown from human embryonic stem cells differentiating into neurons. (Courtesy of the artist)
Radha Chaddah. Agape, 2012. Astrocytes differentiated from adult mouse neural stem cells. (Courtesy of the artist)
Radha Chaddah. Unsuspecting Star, 2012. Astrocytes grown from adult mouse neural stem cells. (Courtesy of the artist)
Radha Chaddah. Cascade, 2012. Fluorescent micrograph of neurons grown from human skin. (Courtesy of the artist)

Radha Chaddah. Awakening. May 10-22 at Arta Gallery, Toronto. Part of the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival. www.scotiabankcontactphoto.com

About the Author

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.

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