Insulin now part of the plasmid is returned to the bacteria.

Partners in Illuminating Science

Circulating Now welcomes guest blogger Aline Lin,  co-founder and principal of Link Studio, an interactive design and medical illustration company.  Aline worked with the Exhibition Program to bring our recent exhibition, From DNA to Beer: Harnessing Nature in Medicine and Industry, to the web.

Portrait of Aline Lin, outdoors.
Aline Lin

Collaboration with the Exhibition Program at the National Library of Medicine is always an exciting endeavor for us at Link Studio because of the common goal we share of educating and engaging the public in the social and cultural history of medicine. In 2013, the Exhibition Program enlisted us to help bring the traveling exhibition, From DNA to Beer: Harnessing Nature in Medicine and Industry, to life online in creative and engaging ways. The results have been well received. From DNA to Beer online has received thousands of visitors since its launch and was honored by the W3 Awards, which are sanctioned and judged by the Academy of Interactive and Visual Arts, with a Silver Award in the category of Government Websites.

Guest-curated by Diane Wendt and Mallory Warner from the National Museum of American History, From DNA to Beer weaves together thought-provoking connections between the processes, dilemmas, and possibilities associated with biotechnology, from the 19th century to the present day. The exhibition explores stories on the use of recombinant DNA in the production of products such as insulin and human growth hormone, how the production of penicillin opened the doors to the era of antibiotics and its overuse, the connection between humans and animals in the development of the diphtheria serum, and the role of microorganisms in the fermentation process that produces products like beer.

Exhibition cases and hanging banners from the From DNA to Beer exhibition at NLM.
From DNA to Beer installed at
the National Library of Medicine

The physical exhibition used a selection of artifacts from the rich and vast collections of both the National Library of Medicine and the National Museum of American History to tell the story. For the online adaptation, we at Link Studio began by considering how to emulate the in-person experience, communicate complex exhibition content effectively, and capitalize on the lack of physical constraints to enhance the virtual experience of the exhibition. Bringing these artifacts and stories online instantly opens the reach to millions of visitors, so we wanted to make the exhibition engaging and meaningful for many different audiences.

Our vision starts when visitors first arrive at the homepage of the site. They are introduced to the main stories or themes of the exhibition though textual description and captivating images. We rotate the themes automatically so that visitors have a preview of what they can explore. They are free to move about in a non-linear fashion. The home page also highlights other features that are only available online. These include educational interactives, a selection of digitized items from the NLM’s collection, and the traveling exhibition booking service. While the online environment liberates us from the limitations of a physical exhibition and allows for further enhancement of the collection, it is important for us to create a sense of order and logic in the virtual environment.

A screenshot of the homepage of the From DNA to Beer website.

Within the “Exhibition” section of the site, visitors are able to delve into the themes of From DNA to Beer. Images and interactives bring the story to life and immerse visitors in a way that’s unique to the virtual experience of the exhibition. For artifacts such as pamphlets, one can flip through each page—much more than a visitor could do if that pamphlet were encased in glass. Other objects are presented as images with areas visitors can click to get more information and view additional related artifacts. 3-D items like an insulin sales kit are demonstrated through interactive simulations of their functions. Audio transcripts of diphtheria serum production ledgers tap into another sense not often appealed to in physical exhibitions.

An artifact interactive featuring:
Insulin sales kit, Eli Lilly and Company, 1940s
Courtesy National Museum of American History

In addition to the exhibition objects, we present visitors with images and books from the digital gallery, a selection of digitized items from the NLM’s collection. Also, the site offers resources for educators in the form of K-12 lesson plans, undergraduate higher education modules, and online activities that utilize the artifacts to support objectives which are aligned to educational standards. We call upon the ability of the medium to connect related types of information and promote further exploration.

What was particularly unique about this online exhibition was the opportunity we saw to teach the science behind the stories. While understanding that the technique of recombinant DNA is used in the development of insulin and growth hormone, we found ourselves asking whether everyone knows what the process of recombinant DNA actually is. Or what the process of fermentation is. Or how diphtheria antitoxin or penicillin are made. With our 19 plus years of experience in biomedical illustration and animation, Link Studio was able to illuminate the science behind these processes through custom HTML5 animations and illustrations. We believe that educating the public about the science behind the stories enables a deeper appreciation of the role these technologies play in our daily lives.

In addition to From DNA to Beer online, we’ve developed other sites for NLM exhibitions, including Pictures of Nursing: The Zwerdling Postcard Collection, Pick Your Poison: Intoxicating Pleasures & Medical Prescriptions, and Surviving & Thriving: AIDS, Politics, and Culture. The work of bringing the social and cultural history of medicine to life online is a challenging, but rewarding and worthwhile undertaking, and we look forward to continuing to develop creative, informative, and engaging virtual experiences for future NLM exhibitions!

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