Sepia officinalis cuttlefish displaying extreme white. Photo: Roger T. Hanlon Laboratory

Sepia officinalis cuttlefish displaying extreme white. Photo: Roger T. Hanlon Laboratory

Linen-swept summer-ites sporting fresh tans and bleached Top Siders drift along the only main street in town. The road is lined with sailboats and sea shops. It’s not a bad place to kill time before catching the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, docked just a few yards down. No, Woods Hole, on the southwestern tip of Cape Cod, is not a bad place to be at all...it’s just not exactly how one might envision the world’s foremost scientific community for cutting-edge marine research. But no one’s complaining. Science is simply encountered differently here, and seeing beyond the apparent is a recurring theme.

I arrived in Woods Hole seeking to integrate artistic and scientific methods of problem solving in the realm of neuroscience. Fortunately, senior scientist Roger Hanlon at the Marine Biological Laboratory had been applying similar thinking to his studies of dynamic camouflage in cephalopods (octopuses, squid and cuttlefish), so he invited me to serve as artist-in-residence in his lab. We narrowed in on a problem requiring multidisciplinary attention: how to visualize a leucophore. A leucophore is a specialized cell-type discovered in the fin of cuttlefish that passively emits one of the purest whites found in nature—more uniformly “white” than any material built by man. Even under the most sophisticated microscope techniques, the cell structure is so small and complex that it evades visual comprehension.

We sought to overcome this, devising a plan to convert thousands of microscope images into a visually discernible, three-dimensional computer model. I worked with scientists who developed computer programs capable of analyzing the complex microscope imagery and converting it into quantitative data. This was a great analytical step, but it still looked a lot like numbers and not a lot like a leucophore, so we turned to blender, an open-source animation software. “Open source” software enables you to directly customize its coding. We did just this by inputting our quantitative data as code, thus repurposing blender for science. Doing so, I was able to render our data with appropriate material and reflective properties, aligning the leucophore’s physical morphology with its functional characteristics.

And the result? An unprecedented glimpse into one of the biological underpinnings of extreme coloration. Furthermore, with technology as a vehicle, we fused artistic and scientific methods, exposing not only some of the inner workings of nature but also a fertile common ground between science and art—and that, I believe, demands further investigation.