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Jacqueline Firkins

Jacqueline Firkins, costume designer in the Department of Theatre and Film at University of British Columbia (UBC)

When Jacqueline Firkins, a costume designer in the Department of Theatre and Film at University of British Columbia (UBC), approached Chris Naus, a professor of cell biology in the UBC Faculty of Medicine about a collaboration using his cell images on clothing to raise public awareness of breast cancer, Naus pictured t-shirts. As an ASCB member, Naus was familiar with the t-shirts handed out by exhibitors at Annual Meetings. That was not what Firkins had in mind.

Instead of t-shirts, the results were 10 exquisite evening gowns inspired by colorful microscopic images of cancer cells provided by the Naus lab. The project, entitled “Fashioning Cancer: The Correlation between Destruction and Beauty,” was assisted by funding through the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies Research Mentoring Program to support interdisciplinary collaborations. Firkins’s idea was to bring science and art together to spark public discussions about the experience of cancer diagnosis and treatment, as well as cancer research and prevention.[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space height=”32px”][dt_small_photos height=”210″ padding=”0″ arrows=”light” show_title=”true” number=”35″ autoslide=”5000″ orderby=”recent” category=”fashioning-cancer”][vc_empty_space height=”32px”][vc_column_text]The Firkins-Naus evening gowns attracted global media coverage including CNN, NBC, the Daily Mail (UK), the Toronto Globe and Mail, CTV, CBC, and The Lancet. Appearing last spring on “The Rush” interview TV program in Vancouver, Firkins described the origins of the project. “I looked at the [cell] images that Dr. Naus had online and I immediately thought that these would make amazing clothes. There was just this phenomenal sense of color, of symmetry and asymmetry, and of contrast—things that as a visual artist I immediately translated from what they meant biologically into three-dimensional art.”

Chris Naus (and crew), professor of cell biology in the UBC Faculty of Medicine

Chris Naus (and crew), professor of cell biology in the UBC Faculty of Medicine

“This is as interdisciplinary as I can imagine,” said Naus whose research in the Department of Cellular and Physiological Sciences focuses on the role of gap junctions in glioma growth and invasion. But Naus told the interviewer that pictures of Firkins’s colorful dresses with their startling cell imagery have opened up conversations about cancer and basic biology with patients and families.

This was a major goal of the project, according to Firkins. The dresses were meant to engage the public through their experiences of cancer. She told The Lancet, “There is a phrase people often use about ‘the ugly truth.’ We don’t think the truth has to be ugly. We are pleased that the work is a small part of a greater dialogue about our relationship to both disease and beauty.”

After its whirlwind media campaign, the gowns were sold at auction last September in Vancouver to raise money to support the Cancer Prevention Centre, a partnership among UBC, the Canadian Cancer Society, Scotiabank, Western Living Magazine (WLM), and Porsche Centre Vancouver. The “Fashioning Cancer” archive is here where all ten dresses can be seen with their original micrographs.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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John Fleischman

John is ASCB Senior Science Writer and the author among other things of two nonfiction books for older children, "Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science" and "Black & White Airmen," both from Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, Boston. Email: jfleischman@ascb.org


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