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Visualizing Science

Syracuse University alumna pairs genetics research with imagery to enhance science communication.

Ahna Skop ’94 savors how her love for science, art, communication, cuisine and mentoring blend together.

Formal portrait of Ahna Skop
Ahna Skop combines her love for science and art in her work as a genetics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

As a professor of genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she explores a microscopic world with an aesthetic eye and shares what she learns with the public through beautiful imagery.

She believes in the power of cuisine to build community and bring together scientists with diverse backgrounds. And she cherishes mentoring students who share her enthusiasm for art and science. “I love that I don’t have to check the art side of my life at the lab door,” says Skop, a recipient of the 2006 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Skop—who will virtually deliver the 2021 Slepecky Memorial Lecture on April 16—began her interdisciplinary journey at Syracuse University, where she majored in biology at the College of Arts and Sciences and minored in ceramics at the College of Visual and Performing Arts . It was a natural fit. She grew up in the suburban Cincinnati area of Northern Kentucky in a household where art was a way of life. Her parents were artists and educators who encouraged creativity in their four children. Her father, Michael Skop ’55, studied at Syracuse under world-renowned sculptor Ivan Mestrovic and played football for legendary coach Ben Schwartzwalder, who years later would sit in his former player’s studio as he sculpted a bust of him for the University.

A vintage photo of a sculptor in his studio
In his Kentucky art studio, former Orange football player Michael Skop ’55 sculpts a bust of his legendary coach, Ben Schwartzwalder.

Although the idea of being a scientist was foreign to Skop in high school, she had a knack for winning science fairs by combining art and science, and had no qualms about dissecting things. When it came time to choose a college, her strong family connection to Orange football had made Syracuse top of mind since she was young, and she wanted to pursue her interest in biology. Once on campus, she embraced classes like molecular biology and landed an enjoyable work-study job in biology department labs. “I was in the lab all the time,” she says. “And I got more and more interested.” She also stayed busy nurturing her creativity in the ceramics studio.

The Work of a Fascinating Organelle

A photograph of cells under a microscope
Ahna Skop ’94 created this image for Science magazine of daughter cells with bridge-like midbodies between them (in green) and midbody remnants.

One of the most influential people in Skop’s career was Syracuse biology professor Kevin Van Doren, who mentored her in his genetics lab for three years. He died in a tragic 1995 accident while she was in graduate school. “That event was a real trauma for me, and it changed the course my career,” she says.

Van Doren’s guidance inspired Skop to pursue a research career that initially focused on the mechanics of cell division in the roundworm C. elegans . She earned a doctorate in cell and molecular biology at UW-Madison and followed with postdoctoral research at the University of California, Berkeley. During her graduate work, she became fascinated with the midbody, a bridge-like, microtubular structure created near the end of mitosis, when a cell is dividing into two daughter cells. In the scientific community, the midbody had long been considered as a “garbage can,” Skop says. Her research revealed treasure. “It has this remarkable assembly, and I discovered that there are a lot of proteins and genes that are important for cell division that no one had found before,” she says. “Now it’s considered a signaling organelle that is the vehicle for genetic material.”

I realized you can join a lab and meet people from all over the world in science. Discovering this part of science was—and still is—a magical time in my life.

—Ahna Skop ’94

The revelatory findings of Skop and her collaborators appeared in the July 2, 2004, issue of Science magazine, which featured a striking cover image she created using microscopic photography. Eventually, she began investigating the midbody’s workings in stem cells and cancer cells—now the main focus of her research. Once the midbodies are pinched off from between daughter cells, they’re shed into the bloodstream and taken in by other cells, where they can affect their behavior and fate. Stem cells jettison these midbody remnants but don’t take them up, while cancer cells constantly ingest them, Skop says. “The RNA inside the midbody is taken up by another cell. And the fate of that cell can be altered just by inheriting one of these previously regarded garbage cans of the cell.”

Adding to the intrigue is the fact that the midbody and midbody-associated contents likely play a role in many cancers, like breast cancer, and also neurodegenerative disease. “I’ve never been more excited in my life than right now,” she says. “I thought I was studying the process of mitosis. As it turns out, I’m studying the assembly of an organelle at the end of mitosis that’s involved in these things. That was a shocker to me.”

Inspiring Learning with Science Art

Skop—who holds affiliate faculty positions in the Department of Life Sciences Communication and the Division of the Arts at UW-Madison—emphasizes the importance of communicating science to the public and draws on her art to make science fun and inspire learning. Since 1997, she has organized an art show for the biennial international conference on C. elegans , giving fellow researchers the opportunity to create “worm art” in a variety of media. With two of her undergraduates, she recently published Genetic Reflections: A Coloring Book , a companion piece to a 40-foot science art installation she created for UW-Madison’s Biotech Center, where other works of her science art adorn the walls.

Skop has delivered lectures worldwide and earned numerous honors for her interdisciplinary insights, research and advocacy for inclusive learning. With Eastern Band Cherokee heritage on her maternal side, she devotes time to outreach work with the Society for the Advancement of Native Americans and Chicanos in Science locally and nationally. “It really transformed me into being a better mentor,” she says. “I also saw my educator parents give back—my dad and mom helped students who struggled balancing difficult personal or home lives with school. And my grandmother, an orphan, ran away from a traumatic childhood at 14 years old, so I do all of my work in honor of her legacy.”

As an IF/THEN ambassador for the American Association for the Advancement of Science—which also cited her as a “Remarkable Woman of Science” in 2008—Skop summoned her foodie instincts and is writing a cookbook that showcases the cultural diversity of scientists through their favorite foods and recipes. Beyond the cuisine, it’s an opportunity for Skop to reflect on a time when she didn’t have money to travel but learned so much culturally from her lab colleagues, especially at Syracuse. “I realized you can join a lab and meet people from all over the world in science,” she says. “Discovering this part of science was—and still is—a magical time in my life.”

Of course, the magic and mystery of science and art will forever captivate her and, as she discovered as a Syracuse biology major, “I like this business.”

Jay Cox

This story was published on .

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