Dr Megan MacLeod

Dr MacLeod describes how the project with artist Eric Schockmel combines video game terminology with memory cell research.

What inspired you to respond to the call out for this project? Have you had experience of working with artists on art & science projects previously?

When I began the project I had no prior experience of collaborating with artists. I have recently started my own research group and thought that Animate’s project sounded like the perfect way for me to learn more about communicating scientific research to the wider world.

Importantly, I am excited at the prospect of promoting why scientific research is important to the general public, and the project seemed like the perfect opportunity to achieve this.

Has working with an artist and explaining your research to them affected your approach to or perceptions of your practice in any way?

I find that talking about my research with non-scientists really helps me to focus on the key elements of my research – to find the best way to convey the broader implications and outcomes of the work. The ability to express these key elements succinctly and clearly is essential for successful grant writing. The experience, therefore, of talking to the artists involved in the project has helped me to focus on these key elements and express my goals much more clearly.

How are you deciding as part of the collaborative process which area of research to focus on?

This part of the project fell very easily into place. I am working with the artist, Eric Schockmel. When Eric first emailed me with his thoughts about the collaboration, he mentioned that he found the concept of memory cells really interesting, in particular that the dynamic aspect of immune memory appealed to him. Eric suggested that he’d like to design a fictional trailer for a video game and it was immediately clear to me that this could included two key elements of immune memory.

First, to become effective memory cells, immune cells must receive and then act on information from their environment – just as in video games, the gamer must interact with what’s happening on screen. Second, memory cells must move around the body and they use the information they receive from the environment to learn where to go to fight infection. Likewise, such movement, or progression through different stages of video games is essential for success.

Could you tell us more about the specific elements of the science that will be covered in the project?

My research focuses on immune memory. This is the process by which by which previous exposure to a pathogen or a vaccine generates protective immune cells and molecules that act rapidly on re-exposure to the same pathogen to protect the individual. As mentioned above, at the start of the project I talked to Eric about the series of stages that immune cells go through as they learn how best to protect the individual and this seemed of great interest to him.

T cells are cells of adaptive immune system that specifically recognise distinct pathogens. However, they start off fairly unprepared to fight pathogens. Following infection, immune cells called antigen presenting cells engulf the pathogen and present it to T cells. The interactions between these antigen presenting cells and T cells leads to an important exchange of information enabling T cells to learn about the pathogen and generate a tailored protective immune response. In gaming terms, these interactions lead to upgrades for the T cells allowing them to gain the weapons needed to defeat the pathogen.

What were your expectations when you first started discussing your work with the artist? Have your expectations changed at all during the development process?

At the start of the project, I hoped that the artist I collaborated with would be excited about my research and be inspired to take the basic concepts of my work and create an exiting and appealing artwork. From my interactions with Eric and his plans, I think that this is exactly what we will achieve.

December 2013