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The Invisible made Visible explains the scientific process of COVID-19 testing through lino-printing by Shevaun Doherty in collaboration with APC Microbiome Ireland.

I am a botanical and natural history artist living in Kildare. I am very interested in biodiversity, and often use my work to raise awareness about endangered species and habitat loss. I became involved in the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan in 2015, designing their cover image, and in 2018, painted a series of bee stamps for An Post.

My work is very detailed and scientifically accurate. I wouldn't describe my work as scientific illustration- I like to use colour and movement to capture a lifelike representation of the subject. This year, my painting of the rare Golden-eye lichen was selected for an exhibition at the National Gallery, and I have just finished the designs for the Irish Europa stamps, 2021. The theme is Endangered Wildlife, so I painted the elusive White Prominent moth, the Freshwater Pearl Mussel, and the fabulous Kerry slug. I use specimens and photographs as reference but very often the photographs don't capture the right pose, so I work in collaboration with the experts to understand the relevant features. The final image needs to be both realistic, accurate and visually appealing.

I paint in watercolours, working on both paper and calfskin vellum. Painting on vellum is challenging, but the colours are often more vibrant and luminous as the paint sits on the surface, rather than sinking into the tooth as it does with paper. Vellum painting also gives a unique quality to the work, like the work on old manuscripts.

I am a visual storyteller, and I am especially passionate about engaging children with my work, as they are the future custodians of the natural world we live in. I would love the opportunity to move beyond just the visual, and to create a body of work that also encompasses the senses of sound and touch, inspiring wonder, and appreciation for nature.

I was interested in this project as I thought it would be a wonderful way of using art to further my own knowledge in areas of biodiversity and explore my creativity.

The APC Microbiome Ireland SFI Research Centre, founded as the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre in 2003, is about people working together across the boundaries of traditional research sectors. The APC has created a lively trans-disciplinary environment with clinicians, clinician-scientists and basic scientists from diverse backgrounds working in teams, sharing ideas and resources. Although focused upon the magic and mysteries of the gastrointestinal bacterial community, (the microbiota), the scale and scope of the work has become one of the fastest moving areas of biology, of relevance to all branches of human medicine and veterinary science, and is of growing importance to the economic welfare of society. 

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The Invisible made Visible explains the scientific process of COVID-19 testing through lino-printing by Shevaun Doherty in collaboration with APC Microbiome Ireland.

Artist Statement

The Invisible made Visible is a project that explains the scientific process of Covid testing through the creative process of lino-printing and film, with music by Boa Morte. I am really excited to be working with the Dr Cormac Gahan, from APC Microbiome, who has been instrumental in developing the Covid Test here.

Covid tests use a process called PCR (Polymerase chain reaction), where a small amount of barely visible genetic material is taken from a virus, and replicated through a series of prescribed repetitive steps, so that multiple copies of DNA are visible.

This process is similar to lino printing, where you start with a blank page and carefully go through a series of prescribed steps to create multiple copies of the original image.

"Both processes involve replication, accuracy, and patience."

The design of the lino print also describes the steps involved in Covid PCR testing. As a botanical artist, I am typically inspired by the organic forms found in nature. I really wanted to avoid the stereotypical images of viruses and syringes for this project, so instead, I have taken my inspiration from the sea, and the beautiful artwork of Ernst Haeckel, diving into the complexities of the DNA replication in a way that will intrigue and captivate younger audiences.

The entire creative process will be filmed, and the video will be shared in schools to explain how Covid PCR testing works. The scientists involved will provide the voiceover, aligning the two processes. Our goal is to communicate that PCR testing is a way of controlling the virus and restoring calm.

SFI Research Centre Statement

Professor Cormac Gahan and Dr Aimee Stapleton

The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a procedure that is used across the globe to diagnose COVID-19 through specific detection of Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. However, PCR has many other uses, from forensic science to molecular cloning and vaccine research. In APC Microbiome Ireland we routinely use the approach to analyse the contribution of specific gut bacteria to human health and disease. Despite the ubiquity of the term ‘PCR’ in our current newsfeed, there is a general lack of understanding of what it involves and how it underpins research and diagnostics across medical and life sciences.

The fundamental basis of PCR is that it is a method to greatly amplify a specific target molecule (DNA or RNA) in a biological sample. In swabs from patients with COVID-19, the virus is present in relatively miniscule amounts. The PCR approach precisely identifies a virus-specific target and uses an amplification process to ensure we can now easily detect this target, thereby making the invisible visible.

The features of PCR, including the specific chemical cycles and the process of amplification, reflect the processes of design, printing and copying that are widely used in the visual arts. Through collaboration with renowned visual artist Shevaun Doherty we will communicate the concept of PCR through the process of creating unique lino prints. The resulting work will represent a visually captivating artistic statement, whilst the lino printing and copying process will form the basis of practical workshops that will be carried out in classrooms and galleries across the country.

Picture of four male musicians
Music by Boa Morte. Image by Craig Carry (l-r): Cormac Gahan, Paul Ruxton, Bill Twomey, Maurice Hallissey