What happens when USC students — some studying art and design, others stem cell biology — examine zebrafish skulls under a microscope? It depends on who’s looking.

During spring 2014, scientists at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at USC invited students from the USC Roski School of Art and Design to find artistic inspiration under microscopes, in petri dishes and in test tubes. The collaboration is part of USC Stem Cell, a university-wide, multidisciplinary initiative working to translate the potential of stem cell research to the clinical imperative of regenerative medicine.

Students hailed from four courses: Advanced Drawing (FADW 301); Advanced Ceramics (FACE 312); Special Project and Design (FADN 432); and Art and Technology (FASC 436). The results ranged from Kristen Chen’s striking watercolor rendition of zebrafish skulls to an outsized environmental design project to decorate and enliven USC’s stem cell building.

“This project demonstrates only one of the many possible forms that collaboration might take between the arts and pioneering scientific research, and the importance of such collaborations,” said Erica Muhl, DMA, dean of USC Roski. “This is challenging our students to translate work from a very specific research medium into a universal visual language. Our students are certainly learning from the process, and it is our hope that the artistic translations may in turn instigate avenues of research not yet envisioned.”

Andy McMahon, PhD, head of USC Stem Cell, added: “Beyond the works of art that have been forged through this collaboration, scientists have improved their ability to communicate with non-scientists, and art students have learned the beauty of science through first-hand lab experience. This has expanded our perspectives and our worlds.”

—Lillian Insalata and Cristy Lytal