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Hunter O'Reilly finds the art in pathology

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Can a deadly virus like HIV be beautiful? Chicago-based artist Hunter O'Reilly, (née Gayle Hunter) Plant Biology '93, thinks it can. Both a geneticist and a visual artist, she brings these fields together in an attempt to explore the beauty she finds hidden within biological science.

One of O'Reilly's most controversial collections, "Viruses are Beautiful," features large-scale digital prints of electron micrographs, on Plexiglas and colored using neon. In her treatment, intensely colored pathogens including influenza, Ebola, herpes, HIV, and rabies look more like colorful children's toys than deadly viruses. "Most people associate the viruses with their physical effects, but have never seen them," O'Reilly says. The paradox inherent in highlighting the beauty of these organisms is part of the message: "Just because something is beautiful does not make it good," she says.

Some of the media O'Reilly works with are unconventional, as well. The glow-in-the-dark patterns on display in her "Living Drawings" series, for example, used living, bioluminescent bacteria. Works such as Her Own DNA, which incorporates a double helix and shapes that represent O'Reilly's own genetic makeup, were created by drawing living bacteria onto a nutrient-rich, Jell-O-like matrix. The original works were fleeting by nature: the glowing bacteria only live for two weeks.

Along with her work as a "bioartist," O'Reilly teaches at the University of Chicago at Loyola, and has created a unique course called Biology Through Art. The course introduces students not only to well-known artists such as Monet and Pollock, but also to more unusual artists such as Gary Schneider, a South African photographer famous for his artistic response to the Human Genome Project called Genetic Self-Portrait. O'Reilly's goals, she says, are to get students to see art where most people just see data, and to make learning biology more fun. "It's interesting to integrate biology and art because it's so novel," she says. "People haven't heard of this before."

But the novelty conceals a deeper purpose. By exposing the public to aspects of science they wouldn't normally consider, O'Reilly hopes to turn the perception of science as the sterile domain of erudite and begoggled geniuses to something that relates to everyday life. Her art reflects a very human sense of wonder at the marvels of the natural world. And after all, she says, "Scientists are only human."

-Stephanie Ludwig is a senior in English at UC Berkeley.

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