Karen Ingram is a creative director, designer, and artist who uses her skill set to promote scientific awareness. With an origin in painting and textile design, Ingram’s professional experience has traversed the arenas of digital design and art direction, creative strategy, event curation, and synthetic biology. She is also one of the authors and illustrators for the BioBuilder “Synthetic Biology in the Lab” textbook.
Design, Empiricist league, Bacterial Photography, BioBuilder textbook, SBOL, Genspace, Synthetic Biology, Community-Bio, Technology.
SciArt Interview with Karen (includes events and images she describes in the BioBuilder Podcast)
Zeeshan Siddiqui (00:00):
Hello and welcome to the BioBuilder podcast. I’m your host Zeeshan Siddiqui, and today I talk with creative director and artist, Karen Ingram. Karen uses her skill set to promote scientific awareness and is involved with public engagement, creative strategy and synthetic biology. She’s also the illustrator for the BioBuilder: Synthetic Biology in the Lab textbook. Let’s dive right in.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (00:25):
Hi, Karen, how are you? Thank you so much for joining me today.
Karen Ingram (00:28):
Yeah, it’s my pleasure. So let’s, let’s dive right into it. You’re now one of the leading designers in synthetic biology, but your career did not start off there. Could you tell us a bit more about who you were before learning about synthetic biology?
Karen Ingram (00:44):
Sure. Yeah. I went to school for painting and then while I was in school, I got a job doing CAD design for a textile company. And that was because I had good color vision, which is kind of funny to get a job that was really fun and interesting. And I just sort of developed a love for technology during the course of that job. And I just, I was incredibly interested in technology. And at one point I began to co-host and co-curate this speaker series in Brooklyn called the Empiricist League that consisted of science-themed talks in this bar venue. So it was like a venue that was usually reserved for musicians and comedians. Anyway. So I met some of the folks who started Genspace through that speaker series and ended up volunteering for a bio art exhibit.
Karen Ingram (01:36):
And Genspace was working with this place that is now closed, called the Observatory, and they were putting together the art exhibit. And, you know, as I was familiar with them and had gone to a few of their classes, like I volunteered to help out with the exhibit. So, you know, just creating graphic materials for the catalog and to help promote the exhibit. So I was like actually working on it and it was, I was working on it because I just, I was so, like I said, I was so intrigued by the idea of coding with life, you know, being able to peel it apart and unpack it like that. And that’s what brought me to MIT was I wanted to learn about the bacterial photography lab that Natalie was teaching at MIT. I attended the class and I made an example of bacterial photography and it didn’t work out, but Natalie shared of course the, the students, examples, all worked, which was really exciting to see.
Karen Ingram (02:32):
And she shared some examples of plates with me and I just, I thought it was so cool that I wanted to create an artifact of the day since I had my plate didn’t work. And so I just made this a one-page infographic that outlined the protocol in a very high level way. And then also what was happening on the microbial level. And it actually took me months to do that because I wasn’t familiar. Like I made it referencing photographs that I had taken of the class kind of referencing all the materials that I had that I’d gotten like during her class and before. And like I said, it took me a really long time to make, because I’m not a researcher and I wasn’t familiar with a lot of the concepts in the paper, but I made it and shared it with Natalie and she thought it was useful. And so she brought me on to help out with the BioBuilder textbook.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (03:24):
Amazing. So just going back, just going back a little bit while attending the BioBuilder workshop, what was your sort of initial reaction to your experiment? Like, was there anything specific you found interesting about the science?
Karen Ingram (03:38):
Yeah, I mean, I thought just the whole idea of, of tweaking a strain of E. Coli To do something that it wasn’t, that it wouldn’t normally do was pretty interesting. And then using the, just the whole idea of photography and using light as an input, creating that input in, in the bacteria was, was really interesting to me. It was, I saw it as a new form of creative expression, just like a new way to work with technology. And it just was really exciting to me. I, in the years after I graduated, I worked a lot in digital code, like with Flash and stuff like that. And
Zeeshan Siddiqui (04:14):
Karen Ingram (04:14):
Yeah, I saw this as kind of like an extension to that, but yeah, going to Natalie’s class was totally next level for me. Like I’m completely intrigued because it was, you know, I mean, I’d made a pinhole camera before and I understood the concepts, like the concepts of light that were at play in the bacteria photography lab. And it just, it really just seemed like a very cool way to, to begin to use life forms, to create, you know, it was like microbes as pixels, except not the microbes, as I understand that it’s the stuff that the microbes make.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (04:50):
Karen Ingram (04:51):
Zeeshan Siddiqui (04:52):
Coming back to BioBuilder textbook, your collaboration with BioBuilder is important because a lot of people talk about STEAM, but don’t really walk the talk. Could you talk a bit more about how your intelligence as an artist was important and how that was integrated into the book?
Karen Ingram (05:10):
I mean, I think I got really lucky because I think working with Natalie and the rest of the team, Rachel and Katie, they were just, I think they started off really appreciating my perspective and, you know, like I said, I didn’t realize that I was making something that would be useful to Natalie and that type of forum, you know? So yeah, I mean, the way that the process went was they put together a Word document with the things they wanted in each chapter. And I read the Word document and sort of went through and made notes where I thought images would make sense and they trusted me and, and I just went through and I made the images and shared it with them and they gave me feedback and I would make tweaks if it was necessary. And, and it was just a really cool process.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (06:02):
What I appreciate now is the importance of design and illustrations in sort of explaining some of the science you’re doing. Because a lot of papers have now asked for like graphical abstracts and just the ability of integrating like simple design is super important. It helps a lot in explaining complex scientific ideas.
Karen Ingram (06:24):
I agree. And I, and that’s cool that a lot of papers are asking for graphical abstracts. I think as a person who isn’t so involved in the science, or at least not from, not from the beginning, I think it helps to translate it to other people who are not involved in the science. Cause I know there was like a visual syntax, like synthetic biology, open language as well. I got really excited by that. And I think also being able to understand that SBOL is sort of like a language within a discipline. If you want to explain something outside of the discipline, you need to expand it somewhat. So.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (07:00):
And what advice would you have, like for someone like me who has realized the importance of illustrating your science to make complex ideas, easier to communicate? So like, I want to pick up Photoshop or Illustrator.
Karen Ingram (07:13):
It’s good to keep it simple. Usually I wouldn’t worry too much about being a great artist or a great illustrator. I would definitely stick with Illustrator and not mess with Photoshop. A lot of scientists are very, they work really hard, and in some ways I feel like maybe they might find themselves getting frustrated because they’re not able to express visually what they want to express. But, you know, I think simple is perfectly fine. Like if you, if you want to use Google slides or if you want to, you know, use Keynote or PowerPoint or whatever, to, to simple shapes, I think that’s completely fine. Simple sometimes as much better than something too complicated, don’t get caught up in trying to make it perfect.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (07:56):
What opportunities and projects have you had the chance to work on since you started with BioBuilder? Obviously the BioBuilder textbook, but what are some of the projects that you’ve been involved with BioBuilder more recently?
Karen Ingram (08:07):
Well, we worked on a new lab. That’s not in the textbook that, yeah, well it’s sort of an extension of the Golden Rice lab, but it involves the MiniPCR. And so I got to go over to her lab at LabCentral and we’re on that, and that was, that was pretty cool. So yeah,
Zeeshan Siddiqui (08:30):
Synthetic biology, to me, the very nature of it is collaborative and interdisciplinary. While you were making the BioBuilder textbook where it’s really a synthetic biology education platform that textbook. Did you feel you were collaborating with people from a diverse range of fields? Were you collaborating with people in obviously the arts, but also in engineering, computer science, statistics, chemists, biochemists, I think would have been a very in terms of the design aspect, a very collaborative and interdisciplinary experience.
Karen Ingram (09:02):
Yeah. I mean, I, I see that a lot in this space. And I think as a person who got involved in synthetic biology, just because I was interested in it, the fact that like it’s clear to me that it’s collaborative and an open space, which is very exciting. I don’t think I would have been able to insert myself if it weren’t and definitely working on the textbook with Natalie and Rachel and Katie was collaborative. Cause you know, like I said, I wasn’t a biologist. I was an artist and they appreciated my specific skill set and my input into the whole experience. And I’ve been getting me, I get that a lot. I do work with some other brands and institutions and I think they value visual input, design and art in a way that I’m not so sure. I mean, you know, like this is a, this is a field that I was drawn to because of the coding nature of it. That synthetic biology is, is unique in the way that it’s interdisciplinary, which is very exciting to me.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (10:07):
Perfect. All right. So I guess the final question I have is what are the key culture, skills, and sensibilities that have served you well as an artist working in synthetic biology?
Karen Ingram (10:20):
That’s a good question. I think, so, I didn’t, I haven’t mentioned this yet, but there was a time where I worked in advertising and marketing when I first moved to actually, yeah. I worked in digital media and marketing and advertising and, in New York, which was pretty interesting, but I think given all that, like what I’ve learned and what I’ve been able to apply, what, okay, so I’m, I’m actually pretty curious. And like I said, I love technology and that is what made me sort of gravitate towards synthetic biology and want to, to play with it. Some is just the curiosity, but the marketing and advertising component, I learned how to translate complex ideas and strategies into outputs that people can relate to. That was super helpful, that stint in marketing and advertising was helpful for me to be able to look at complex ideas and strategies and shape them into something that’s relatable.
Karen Ingram (11:18):
So that those, those skills and sensibilities have definitely helped with synthetic biology. Because I do think that like, you know, it’s still a young enough field that there is lots of room to make bridges, especially among people who don’t have science backgrounds. And I spent a lot of like, it’s really, the curiosity is really like the biggest thing. Because I spent a lot of, I spent some time going to SYNBERC, which is like the consortium of MIT and Stanford and universities. They got like a ten-year grant from the government and it’s over now, but I spent some time going to those, those meetings and sitting and listening to a lot of presentations about research and hearing a lot of the jargon and trying to unpack it and just taking notes and, and, you know, as I would sit and listen to things, I wouldn’t, it wouldn’t always make sense. But later on once I would see the repetition and,
Zeeshan Siddiqui (12:14):
Yeah, you start to piece together, the puzzles.
Karen Ingram (12:17):
Yeah. Just started to piece it together and things would start to make sense. And you know, I would listen to somebody talk about their research and I understand like maybe 20% of it. And then later on, you know, maybe like a few months later, I’d be like, I understand, you know, 75% of that.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (12:36):
That’s amazing just by attending different events and seminars, you see a pattern and you’re able to go from 20% to 70% quicker than you think.
Karen Ingram (12:46):
Yeah. And, and you know, like, like I’m never going to be a researcher, but I can understand some of what is trying to be or what they’re conveying and hopefully translate it to other audiences.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (12:57):
I always think science is incomplete until it’s communicated.
Karen Ingram (13:00):
Yeah. That’s really interesting. I mean, a lot of it might get lost in the lab.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (13:06):
Karen, it has been an absolute pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much for joining the BioBuilder podcast today.
Karen Ingram (13:12):
Yeah, of course. It’s fun.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (13:15):
Hopefully we can have you on for a few more episodes later.
Karen Ingram (13:18):
I would love that. That would be fantastic.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (13:21):
Thanks. Once again, to Karen for joining me, it was a pleasure learning about how her passion and curiosity led her from painter to science communicator, to illustrator for the BioBuilder textbook and beyond. Her journey really shows the diversity of educational and career backgrounds of the lovely people working at BioBuilder. I thought Karen’s comments about seeing biology as a new form of creative expression and a new way to work with technology very insightful. I believe this episode will be very helpful to artists looking for a pathway into science communication through design, as well as scientists looking to induce the expression of their creative genes and dive into synbio illustration. If you would like to learn more about anything, Karen and I discussed today, please refer to the show notes,
Zeeshan Siddiqui (14:07):
Join me for the next BioBuilder podcast. We’ll welcome another wonderful guest whose career has been influenced by BioBuilder’s life-changing science. See you next time.