Entering the gallery of virtual sculpture and photography created on the World Wide Web by J. Kenneth Eward '89, one is seduced into belief in its reality by the undulating beauty of the forms. So enchanting are these pieces that it is easy to imagine them gracing a space in someone's home.
The inspiration for this sculpture, as for much of Eward's work, comes not from conventional sources but instead from the intangible domain of atoms and molecules. Although Eward is in part an artist, he is a scientist by training and currently engages in biology research in addition to his artistic pursuits.
The blending of science and art goes at least as far back as Leonardo da Vinci's work during the Renaissance. But, whereas da Vinci was working with what is visible to the naked eye — muscle, bone, and sinew — Eward's work focuses on life at the cellular and molecular levels where advances in computer technology have opened this realm of nature to artistic exploration.
Eward's journey to becoming an artist and "visualizaton researcher" was unforeseen. In fact, such a vocation did not exist when he entered Kenyon in the mid-eighties. A biology major, he expected that he would follow a traditional scientific career path of graduate study leading to a career in neuroscience research. Art was not a part of the equation. Although he had been an avid photographer since childhood, "I had a real fear of art during my college years," says Eward, "not of the creative process but of its outcome, which in my case was never pretty."
Encouraged by Professor of Biology Kathryn R. Edwards, his mentor in the biology department, Eward planned to go to graduate school and earn a Ph.D. He chose Columbia University's program in physiology and cellular biophysics, but he left after receiving a master's degree. "Not everyone likes the first year of graduate school, so, although I had my own reservations about the program, I stuck it out," he says. "The second year was no better, but I finished the master's degree anyway. As graduation approached, I began to ask myself: 'What else can I do?'"
Following graduation, Eward worked independently to develop computer input device technologies, hoping to patent and market the resulting products. He based his inventions in part on designs found in nature, drawing upon his knowledge of the sensory systems of animals and plans. Even so, "I learned very quickly that I didn't have the financial resources or business connections to manufacture them. Then I got scooped. I decided to try for a traditional job."
There was not a lot of work available in New York City for a scientist who had left the safe confines of academe. "I did a lot of pavement pounding. Although I was keen to tackle new experiences, the jobs available to me promised nothing but a lifetime of drudgery. My thoughts returned to alternatives that would allow a degree of self-determination."
To keep body and soul together, Eward took a job in the archive of a stock-photography agency. While working there, he had many opportunities to consider the types of images that appeared in science textbooks and even to garner a freelance job creating illustrations. He was also doing some tutoring in chemistry on the side and, while manipulating tinker toy-like molecular models, speculated on what would result if he could create the images on the computer.
"At the time, I didn't have access to molecular modeling software; my first attempts were very primitive," recalls Eward. "I cast shadows of plastic models onto the wall of my apartment to make a two-dimensional projection, traced the outlines on acetate sheets, and transferred them to the computer. The resulting computer image files were sent to a nearby photo bureau, where they were recorded on 35mm slides."
In 1993, Eward conceived of a project to develop cell biology visualization techniques and educational software. He established his company, BioGrafx, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and began work, but hit a roadblock early on: "I needed access to an electron microscope for my work, but couldn't find anyone willing to let an outsider —especially an untrained one — use their equipment." Getting in touch with Edwards and former Associate Professor of Biology David Marcey at Kenyon, Eward learned that they both had experience with electron microscopy and — equally importantly — they were willing to help.
"I've taken great pleasure in Ken's frequent communications since he graduated and I was excited when he wanted to return to Kenyon to learn about preparation of specimens for electron microscopy, says Edwards. "Later, when he wanted to move his BioGrafx business to Mount Vernon in order to collaborate on a large-scale web-based teaching project with past-professor Marcey and myself, we were delighted."
Eward moved to Gambier in 1997. "My original plan was to stay in the Gambier and Mount Vernon area temporarily — just for the two or three years it would take to complete this portion of the project," he recalls. "My plans have since changed." In July 1999, Eward married Rosemary Marusak, an associate professor of chemistry at Kenyon.
BioGrafx is now established in Mount Vernon, where Eward has continued his Cell Visualization Project research, supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Education. One of its goals is to allow students and other Internet users to navigate through computer reconstructions of real human cells as if piloting an airplane.
"This is a new approach to understanding the internal structures of cells," says Eward. "The cells are reconstructed from physical measurements, using advanced computer-imaging techniques. Without the limitations of traditional microscopy, the computer reconstructions permit cells to be explored interactively in three dimensions."
The project, which has received favorable press from a number of magazines, including Wired (September 1997), will be featured in a supercomputer-driven virtual reality tour of the cell in an upcoming life-sciences museum exhibit, scheduled to open in summer 2000.
Kenyon's biology department has used Eward's cell videos in the introductory and nonmajors courses. "Ken has taught us clever ways of using software that we were previously unaware of or naive about," says Edwards. "It has been rewarding and energizing to have him as a visiting scholar and to participate in his ongoing career."
Eward's artwork has graced the covers of Life (April 1998) and Time (September 1999) magazines, and it was published in the retrospective volume The Art of National Geographic: A Century of Illustration. His academic contributions include creating the cover for Molecular Cell Biology, written by Harvey Lodish '62.
Last year, Eward spent four months working on the final of four millenial supplements for National Geographic magazine on genomics and informatics and the universe. The project involved the creation of scientifically accurate three-dimensional models of the universe.
"Not knowing much astronomy, I had no idea of the project's true scope," says Eward. "During the initial meetings, I learned that my job was to attempt to parallel similar work under way at NASA and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City." The catch was that these institutions had employed teams of researchers to work on their respective projects during the previous one to two years. Eward had only four months. "It was more than a little intimidating," he concludes.
Where Eward will ultimately be able to take BioGrafx is still uncertain. What is certain, however, is that his illustrations of the mysteries of life at the cellular level will introduce budding scientists to a world that, though unseen, is more beautiful and spiritually uplifting than was ever imagined.