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Bad trip to the electron microscope 

Digital collage, photograph 

Place of Origin




Inspiration and composition


The inspiration for this collage came from a failed experiment during Bauzá-Martinez’s PhD studying the secretome of mammalian cells, more specifically ‘the extracellular vesicles, which are very small intercellular communication units’. By understanding the secretome of cells we can better understand how these specialised communication units transfer messages between cells and how we can use them as liquid biopsies or as targeted drug delivery platforms. ‘The extracellular world is so colourful, nuanced, and complex, but it remains tremendously understudied’; themes Bauzá-Martinez wanted to explore in her digital collage.  ‘When researching the secretome, we are looking at a tiny sample of vesicles that we need to image to ensure they are pure and undamaged’. Due to their small size (nanometres), this can only be done using an electron microscope. ‘Everything seemed perfect for months, cells looked healthy, and EV-secretion went smooth. But, when we imaged the resulting vesicle preparations, suddenly some bacteriophages appeared in them. This should not be happening in mammalian cells!’ Trips to the electron microscope can be really stressful and this one trip was a bad one for me’. While the phage ruined several months of hard work, Bauzá-Martinez also found ‘it’s tiny body and hexagonal shape surprisingly beautiful’ and also

somewhat familiar, ‘sort of like a cactus in a barren landscape’. After seeing the call for the exhibition, Bauzá-Martinez began to explore different ideas of how she might represent this anomaly in a piece of art. A digital collage, a skill her father had taught her, using Adobe Illustrator, seemed the most imaginative way to share her experience. For this piece, Bauzá-Martinez wanted to capture the essence of Russian avant-garde painter Kazimir Malevich, ‘who uses a lot of red blocks and bold shapes and colours in his work’. The black lines around the separate frames and bright colours gives it a modern minimalist look but also somehow hallucinogenic. The bacteriophages are arranged in a cactus-like structure on the right, the extracellular vesicles are arranged in a rocky formation on the left combined with a real cactus and two poppy flowers, both elements often associated with mind-altering effects. The psychedelic sky is based on the essence of mass spectrometry, and the black and white canvas is an interpretation of the changing profiles of the proteome of the vesicles in different conditions. When asked what she wanted the public to experience when looking at her image, Bauzá-Martinez said that she ‘wants people to see that failed experiments aren’t always bad. I often learn the most through failure’, and in this instance the exploration path can also be beautiful. 

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The artist

About Julia Bauzá-Martine

Julia Bauzá-Martinez recently finished her PhD in Drug Innovation at UMC Utrecht as part of the research group of Prof. A. Heck. Her research focused on high-sensitivity mass spectrometric approaches to characterise novel aspects of extracellular vesicle biology, composition, and structural features. Bauzá-Martinez grew up in an artistic household; her father has been a practicing artist and architect for the last 50 years and her greatest inspiration. While art is something she does more as a hobby and to unwind from the stresses of her scientific work, she has considered doing more with it, such as becoming an illustrator for a science magazine. As a creative outlet at the start of her PhD, Bauzá-Martinez ran a successful science communication Instagram account that had around 2000 followers and helped explain scientific images in plain language to a general audience. 

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