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DNA art focus at ECU

(Feb. 14, 1994)   —   Art is in the eye of the beholder, but Ulla Godwin of East Carolina University also demonstrates that art is in the genes.
Mrs. Godwin is the manager of ECU’s molecular biology laboratory, where students and scientists study diseases of fish.
In their research, they separate cells from tiny pieces of flesh and inject the cells into what resembles soap-bar-size cakes of Jell-O. Next, they add a charge of electricity.
When viewed under a special light, the gelatin becomes a bar graph of tiny long and short ladders. Science calls the ladders DNA — the “building blocks of life.”
How does DNA relate to art?
Godwin uses a sharp pair of scissors and an artist’s eye to transformed photographs of the DNA ladders into landscapes and skylines. In one picture she shows the Empire State Building in New York and another there is the nation’s Capitol and Monument.
The tiny DNA ladders form the lighted windows in the buildings. They also comprise bridges, archways, rivers and clouds.
In one creation, Godwin also added enlarged photos of cancer cells to make hedges and yard plants.
“I have a lot of fun doing these pictures,” said Godwin, who produced her first picture last summer. Now, her art is getting international exposure.
A science magazine in London, “New Scientist,” published one of her DNA picture this fall. “Scienza,” an Italian publication, published a picture too. A newspaper in Amsterdam also wrote a story about her. Most recently, the Discovery Channel took an interest in her work. The cable TV channel wants to feature her in a new program “World of Wonders,” beginning next fall.
“I never dreamed I would get this much attention,” Godwin said.
In addition to the media, a science products company has also offered to sell posters of her works, but the cost of printing posters is high and Godwin is unsure her posters will sell. Would people buy a poster named “Washington D.C.D.N.A.,” or “King Kong Visits Planet DNA,” or “Ethidium Bromide by Light,” she asks.
So far her costs have been low. The DNA photographs are rejects from science research projects at ECU. Faculty and students contribute their discarded pictures which portray fish and reptile DNA.
The university scientists extract the DNA samples for research on the immune systems of mostly catfish and stripped bass. The more science learns about fish and their diseases, according to Godwin, the easier it is to raise fish commercially.
Godwin manages the lab where the DNA is extracted. She said the produce used to make the DNA visible is called “agarose gel electrophorus.”
A native of Germany, Godwin moved to North Carolina 17 years ago. She joined ECU in 1986. She said she has never studied art. Her background is science.
But art has become an important part of her life too.
“Sometimes I just want to tell the world good bye and go home and work on another picture,” she said.
She has produced a half dozen framed art works. Some of her pictures, and an explanation of how she made them, are on display in the lobby of Science Building.