Biomedical science meets art

Well I don’t know what inspired me more in Vegas, the museum devoted to Leonardo Da Vinci or the Chuck Jones exhibition. I think both inspired me equally because they combined my love of the human body with my love of art and animation. Biomedical science after all is a visual subject with the use of microscopy to study cells and tissues, so the subject often appeals to the artist in us.

Leonardo was a genius there is no doubt, as an artist, scientist and inventor. His drawings of human anatomy as with many artists of that time originated from the dissection of exhumed bodies. In 15th century Italy in fact human dissection at medical schools such as Padua were public events, and this is where the word “carnival” reportedly originated with “carne” meaning meat. These public events included musicians and entertainers as well as eminent surgeons of the day. This was biomedical science in its merest infancy with the preliminary beginnings of experimentation at this time such as those conducted by William Harvey which led to his discovery of the circulatory system.

As well as advancing the understanding of human anatomy through his drawings, Leonardo sketched out many inventions and innovations, particularly around the quest for flight. However it was also suggested that many of these ideas may not have been his own, and were talked about at that time which he then may just have sketched for himself.

Arts and science banner

Most fascinating was a recent study using a range of photographic techniques to study closely the Mona Lisa. It was interesting to note that she has no eyebrows or eyelashes and schools of thought now suggest that the delicate paint work simply had not lasted over time, rather than Leonardo causing interest and controversy by not giving her these features. If we get all scientific for a moment, arts meets science again in one of the techniques called spectroscopy which is a laboratory technique in biomedical science and also a version of it – Raman spectroscopy – is a way of fingerprinting paint pigments and is used to authenticate oil paintings and determine which pigments and paints were used.

Well onto another fine artist and the work of Charles Jones – or beloved Chuck Jones who drew many of our favourite cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Pepe le Pew and Road Runner, and so many more. Being an amateur animator myself I can appreciate the incredible amount of work that went into creating some 30 frames per second; all cells were hand drawn and painted by teams of animators and artists and then painstakingly filmed. Of course we can automate the process today using Adobe Flash, but as with anything digital you loose the depth and richness of colour that a computer simply cannot represent.

Being from near Nottingham I have to particularly like his rendition of Robin Hood and his merry men! Of course his characters were brought to life by the vocal skills of Mel Blank who worked for the studios for over 60 years. The created cartoons were genius although it is sad that gone is the day where the television schedules would have a five minute interlude for a Looney Tunes Cartoon from Warner Brothers.

Robin Hood and his Merry Men


I think the quote of the day goes to Leonardo though,

“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do”.

Absolutely – just DO IT! I did, and I ended up in Las Vegas!

Viv Rolfe


Biology Courses in Las Vegas Days 2 and 3

Well being a biomedical scientist I am still dying to call it Las Vagus! (One of the most important nerves in the body!) But day two of the biology courses team attending the SLOAN-c conference continues to be an awesome experience, as do the sights of Vegas by night. It is very easy to lose track of it being day or night, especially as my body clock is completely upside down.

I spoke to someone from Grand Canyon University today which not only sounds like a fabulous place to work but talked about one of their distance learning courses that caters for 50,000 students. Everything seems to be on such a vast scale over here. Walk up Vegas high street and you have erupting volcanos, gondolas,  water fountains and fireworks. They clearly aren’t bothered about their carbon footprint, but hey, you’ve got to have some fun in the world and stop taking it all so seriously.



My presentation was on day three at 11am Friday 27th July which coincided with the opening of the Olympic Games in London. My talk explained about the biology courses open education project and it went down well as I described open education activities in the UK and at De Montfort University. There were a range of subject specialists in the audience from maths and statistics, to life sciences and chemistry. They seemed to share the opinion that open educational resources can help meet basic skills deficits in laboratory techniques, and there is a real move to “flip” education – that is, to give the learning materials before teaching sessions and practicals to then give more time for discussion and interaction. I’m not sure how this might work with a lecture theatre full of nearly 200 students studying our biology courses like Medical Science and Biomedical Science, but hey I might give it a go.

So what will I do differently when I get home? I will try “flipping” at least for some sessions. I will look into eBooks and magazines as a way of delivering materials to students, and this seems to be the growing thing here with all students kitted out with iPads at some institutions! I think this would be a great concept for our own biology courses if students could have their laboratory schedules and help materials on iPads in the lab – although they will have to be waterproof! Are iPads waterproof by the way? They look pretty indestructible although I have had one crack on me! I’m adamant that we need electronic systems to track student achievement and progression and I have an APP to try out that achieves that in a very simple way.

So I will be sad to leave Vegas and leave behind some good friends from the conference. Next stop Boston over on the East Coast where I will be meeting people to talk more about our Biology Courses project.

Open education news from Las Vegas conference

Open education conference news

Students making their own textbooks with open content!
(Afnan-Manns, Mickelsen and Medrano, Paradise Valley Community College, US).

This talk on open education from Paradise Valley Community College ( was a nice example of students being involved in open educational activities and gaining many benefits. Library staff worked with students to provide them with digital literacy skills to search for open educational materials and content on the internet, and then worked with them to evaluate the quality and critically appraise the content. These skills themselves are critical today for our information-driven society and are important for all university leavers to grasp.

Open Education

How did they change their courses?

They replaced face-to-face lectures on international business with interactive sessions supplemented with lectures. Through this, students became curators of their digital information and compiled an open textbook to replace an existing recommended text. Why do this? It seems that with high fees, the prospects of students buying expensive course books is a barrier to them enrolling and taking courses in the US. Also in some subjects, the books cannot keep up with say medical advances, current affairs and global activities. This is where open education has the advantage of being continually shared and added and updated on the internet.

How were the teaching sessions structured? Students formed teams and each decided upon a book chapter, e.g. product life cycles, globalisation etc. They then searched for OER and retrieved a bundle of good quality materials. As their text book chapter contribution they reviewed the OER with a summary, wrote keywords and a headline. The chapter was correctly cited and referenced to attribute the OER. Students produced their work in Blackboard on a WIKI so could view each others work and provide comments.

The work was monitored by library team and module academic Dr Morano. As he commented, the wealth of material retrieved by the students was amazing, and found new items and information that he couldn’t have possibly read. Also, the module was brought alive by real-time events and news.

Open education practices – the downside?

As always, new advances take an investment of time, and open education practices are no exception. Time was required to up-skill the students in digital literacy, and time was needed to encourage them to write WIKIS and comment. Dr Morano to transfer from a diactic content delivery to more interactive teaching sessions, which were backed up by lectures. This resulted in changes to module assessment because learning outcomes were not static year on year and changed with the nature of the resources found. This would have implications for writing examination questions early in the year before content was delivered.

The upside!

Through being involved in open education and by becoming partners in learning, the business students learnt practical skills of managing information, and experienced team-working and working collaboratively in an on-line environment. Their test scores improved, although the longer term impact on enrollment or retention where “text book-free” courses are seen as a popular choice remains to be seen.