Martin`s small world — or how to make a cover story for Cell

Whenever science photographer Martin Oeggerli is called upon, the research in question is usually tackling a practically invisible world. Recently, he was invited to contribute an image to a publication that provides fundamental insights into the biology of circulating tumor cells. The paper had been accepted by Cell, one of the world’s most renowned scientific journals, and optionally the editors had also asked the researchers to submit a cover suggestion. Together with Nicola Aceto and his team from the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel, Oeggerli developed a concept for visualizing the microscopic structure of circulating tumor cells which ultimately won the cover story. It is Oeggerli`s second consecutive Cell cover within a year in collaboration with scientists at the University Basel. I took the occasion to ask him about his art of microscopy.

Mr. Oeggerli, how do you get started when you take on a new project?

When I am asked to join a team, I first meet the scientists and try to understand what makes the research so unique. Simplification and precision are of central importance for the concept of an image — the final picture needs to be distinctive, it should transport a simple message, and it absolutely has to stick out from the digital flood of images we are daily exposed to. In this case, it was clear right from the start that some exemplary cluster of circulating tumor cells (CTC cluster) should be the main actor in the image to be designed. With this concept of the ideal image, I started the first careful and time-consuming tests for best sample preparation in the lab.

Can you describe the image for us?

The image was taken from a fairly high viewpoint, and it shows a CTC cluster with 10–15 cells, which were isolated from the blood of a patient with breast cancer. The surface of each cell is full of minuscule detail. The background is clean and quiet, showing the steps of a microchip. Obviously, this picture was highly magnified to provide plenty of detail. The original image was captured with a scanning-electron-microscope (SEM) which offers magnification factors up to 500'000-times and even more.

© M Oeggerli / Micronaut 2018, supported by Pathology-, C-CINA / Biozentrum-, and I. Krol, and N. Aceto, Faculty of Medicine-, University Hospital and University Basel.

What has to happen in order for a cancer cell to become an image?

It always begins with thorough sample preparation. Cells need to be fixed and point-dried very carefully. Additionally, every sample needs to be sputtered with a thin layer of gold, to allow the best possible image quality and resolution. When I place a sample inside the vacuum chamber of the SEM, I start to look for the perfect situation. Once I discover a suitable cluster, I explore the area by moving, rotating and tilting the object, to determine the most attractive perspective. I then adjust the sharpness very carefully, trying to avoid any damage to the vulnerable cells. After this, a high-resolution SEM scan is captured in black-and-white. It`s only afterward that I digitally color the image in a process that is utterly complex and time-consuming, often taking several weeks for a single picture. During the process, minute structures are precisely selected, and 50+ colors are added layer-by-layer until a photorealistic picture emerges.

The mise-en-scène is quite strong.

Yes, by manually selecting hidden structures to color the black-and-white scan, I try to revitalize the scenery and guide the viewer into the picture, intuitively pointing towards the new scientific findings: every cell of the cluster comes from the same patient, yet they hold invisible differences. Teaming up with other cells makes clusters more dangerous than the same number of single cells. The finding is of general importance to understand the process of metastasis in cancer — and it allows scientists to develop new solutions for the patient!

Detail of CTC cluster, © M Oeggerli / Micronaut 2018.

Artist or scientist: How would you describe yourself?

In 2005, I received my PhD in the field of cancer research from the University Basel. Obviously, I have a scientific background, and I’m inspired by current research topics. Additionally, my samples are often organized and produced in collaboration with scientists. I go to great lengths to conserve my samples very precisely — as naturally as possible. Just as a scientist would. But if you ask a researcher, they will all give you a clear answer: it is art.

Photo-realistically-colored SEM pictures are simply not the daily routine of a scientist. It’s not expected. During the creation of a work, my attention is primarily focused on the artistic effect, paying attention to every detail and the fact that it has to be printed in a large format and at museum quality. Over the past ten years, my limited edition prints have been on display worldwide, including in South Korea upon invitation by artist and art director Ai Weiwei.

An exhibition with a selection of limited fine prints by Martin Oeggerli will be on display at Sarasin Art in Basel from January 18 through March 2, 2019. The opening is on January 17, 6 pm. A special event will take place on January 31, 6.30 pm, featuring a conversation between Martin Oeggerli and Rosa Lachenmeier on the question “Art or Science?,” following a talk by Prof. Volker Dittmann. Open and free for all.

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