As a kid Drew Berry was captivated by the undersea documentaries of Jacques Cousteau and dreamt of becoming a marine biologist. But en route to that ambition, during his undergraduate years at the University of Melbourne, he was pulled into the depths of the microscopic world.
Equipped with the curiosity of a scientist, the creativity of an artist and the wizardry of a computer geek, he has followed Cousteau’s lead to the extent of focusing a lens on an otherwise invisible, unfathomable world, bringing it to the surface for all to see. This world is also full of beauty, complex inter-relationships and the odd dangerous creature. It’s the wild frontier within all of us, our deep cell biology.
As the leader of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute’s world-leading biomedical animations team, Berry conjures up dancing, replicating ropes of DNA, pulsating viruses and constellations of stem cell colonies. He can track the journey of a malaria parasite from a mosquito deep into its human host, or provide a close up exposé of the malevolent opportunism of cancerous tumors.
While scientists have always tried to visualise and sketch worlds they conceive but can’t see, Berry found himself in the right moment to bring technological tools to the task, exploiting the simultaneous explosions of cell biology and computer graphics to crack open a new field of scientific expression. Animation has, he says, emerged as “a perfect medium for demonstrating dynamic systems like biology and the ideas and discoveries coming out of places like the institute”.
His arrival in that moment was as much about serendipity as science. Dismayed in his student years at the process of chasing grants, he abandoned his PhD to work in an advertising company where he was so woeful at flogging computer chips that he was shifted into the fledgling world of Photoshop and computer imagery. He thrived and, when science beckoned again, took the skills to the institute in 1995.
Until his arrival the images taken from microscopes were still being captured on film, processed in dark rooms and cut and pasted onto slides. Now Berry was conferring with scientists on their projects, delving into the literature, and playing with graphic possibilities to illustrate their work with animations, “just as an experiment”.
Soon the sequences he created were featuring in science programs like Quantum and sought out by news agencies. “It led to documentaries and museum exhibitions and just snowballed. With the science exploding, the pace of change, there are just so many stories to be told”. Now many institutions routinely invest in developing animations to tell their scientific stories.
Today Berry leads a team dedicated to that task – all scientists, all conceiving mind-blowing ‘movies’ of our cellular life.
It is all derived from real science. It is accurate to scale, accurate to speed. Once we have the data in the animation system we can manipulate it to make it watchable.
He approaches the task like a cinematographer. “I use art tricks like camera placement to make sure people are looking at the right spot, or to make an image more exciting. I will use color to invoke emotion, a disease or healthiness or the terror of an infection. It’s about using the palate of art to communicate science.
I’m using art as a communication tool rather than as an abstraction or a reflection of how I’m feeling. Trying to directly show the material.
While the images he creates are useful within the scientific realm, helping lift complex concepts out from under the weight of jargon, the work is chiefly projected outside the laboratories, at “reaching larger audiences … to bring them into this world, to have a sense of what cancer actually is, or how a parasite like malaria traverses the body. This is not about the detail, it’s about an overview, about engagement.” It’s also a powerful way to reach the next generation. “Animation is fabulous for engaging kids, to give them an appreciation of what the science is about.”
The specialised, beguiling cellular images and language Mr Berry has created has seen him sought out to contribute to feature films and even a music video in which Icelandic singer-songwriter Bjork ponders her genetic heritage in the song Hollow. He’s won a BAFTA, an Emmy and a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant” providing $US100,000 a year for five years, “no strings attached”. He uses the grant to conceive and stage annual major science/art projects such as the 2014 White Night projection of ‘Virus one billion times’ in the State Library of Victoria.
As diverting as such projects can be, his passion is “wallowing in the science, so that keeps me here”.
And his favorite moment? It’s hard to go past showing his rendering of replicating DNA to one of the men who discovered its structure, Dr James Watson. “It was terrifying.” After silently watching the animation twice the Nobel laureate gave his verdict: “Wow. Keep it up.”
“So that was a good moment,” says Berry.