Entangled art

How the PDB art project is bringing proteins to life

A sketch of a double helix in purple, with splashes of colour in yellow and orange in the background
Deepti Gupta and David Armstrong smiling to camera in a zoom screenshot. Deepti is a woman with dark hair and brown skin smiling to camera, wearing a red shirt with white spots. David is a white man wearing glasses and light brown hair, with a light brown beard. He is wearing a dark blue shirt.

Deepti Gupta and David Armstrong are curators for the Protein Databank in Europe (PDBe) at EMBL-EBI. David Armstrong is also the Outreach and Training Coordinator for the PDBe team.

Deepti Gupta and David Armstrong are curators for the Protein Databank in Europe (PDBe) at EMBL-EBI. David Armstrong is also the Outreach and Training Coordinator for the PDBe team.

The PDBe (Protein Data Bank in Europe) team are based at EMBL's European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridgeshire. Their day job is to provide structural information and data about proteins to the biomedical science community. Since 2015, PDBe team members Deepti Gupta and David Armstrong have been running an art project in collaboration with The Art Society CANTAB and The Art Society GRANTA. They work with local school art departments to create artworks inspired by the molecules of life. Deepti leads the PDB art project and David leads the outreach and training at PDBe. They tell us their story here. 

A drawing of a tyrannosaurus rex standing opposite a chicken. They are bound together with a green vine with leaves.

"Collagen" by Mia Douglas Mueller

"Collagen" by Mia Douglas Mueller

The piece is a blue ceramic circle with a large hole just off centre and lots of smaller holes with square, circle and triangle shapes

"Haemoglobin" by Dylan Hosking

"Haemoglobin" by Dylan Hosking

A print with a repeated black and white pattern with lots of loops and spikes

"Cancer" by Joshua Wenley

"Cancer" by Joshua Wenley

Item 1 of 3
A drawing of a tyrannosaurus rex standing opposite a chicken. They are bound together with a green vine with leaves.

"Collagen" by Mia Douglas Mueller

"Collagen" by Mia Douglas Mueller

The piece is a blue ceramic circle with a large hole just off centre and lots of smaller holes with square, circle and triangle shapes

"Haemoglobin" by Dylan Hosking

"Haemoglobin" by Dylan Hosking

A print with a repeated black and white pattern with lots of loops and spikes

"Cancer" by Joshua Wenley

"Cancer" by Joshua Wenley

Deepti: The PDB art project aims to make science more accessible, to inspire young people to explore the beauty of proteins through art. We started with a single student and we now work with eight schools! It’s a collaborative programme bringing together art societies, school art and science departments whereby students create artworks based on proteins from our database (PDBe) whilst, at the same time, we introduce them to the world of structural biology. 

David: Our motivation is to share our science with a wider audience, to engage the public in science that underpins human health, disease and pharmaceutical drugs. We’re involved in a fascinating world of proteins that we can open up to others - when you discuss proteins they’ve never heard of and see their spark of interest, it’s just great. 

Deepti: I had not seen protein crystals until my undergraduate studies, and I immediately fell in love with protein structures after seeing my sparkly diamond-shaped protein crystals, and doubly so, after resolving its 3D structure to appreciate how informative protein structures can be!

Our aim is to engage with three different audiences, the students involved in the project, their teachers and a public audience, as well as students’ friends and families, who visit the exhibition. In 2021, we reached an even wider audience through the virtual exhibition, it made the artwork accessible to more people, not just the local Cambridge community. 


The hand of a student holding a paintbrush, painting a first draft on a blank page with two sketches of what seem helixes, in green and blue

A student from Gainsborough school working on his first draft of artwork.

A student from Gainsborough school working on his first draft of artwork.

A group of adults stand smiling in front of a camera at a PDB art project exhibition.

David, first from the left, and Deepti, first from the right, with some colleagues at a PDB art project exhibition.

David, first from the left, and Deepti, first from the right, with some colleagues at a PDB art project exhibition.

A papier mache sculpture with white circles and green beans or leaves surrounding it
A print with some dark blue leaves and an old man in the same blue ink in the corner of the picture, setting on a bench. In the background are some light green helices and loops
Several colourful DNA helices are hanging from a circular holder. They are against a black background
A circular ceramic piece in with a blue and brown colouring, surrounded by lots of conical spikes
A papier mache sculpture with white circles and green beans or leaves surrounding it
A print with some dark blue leaves and an old man in the same blue ink in the corner of the picture, setting on a bench. In the background are some light green helices and loops
Several colourful DNA helices are hanging from a circular holder. They are against a black background
A circular ceramic piece in with a blue and brown colouring, surrounded by lots of conical spikes

David: What we have learned, through the students’ feedback, is that they had not considered the crossover between art and science before being involved in PDB art. This project can help them understand that subjects that are often considered distinct from each other, actually, can be used together.

Deepti: Students appreciate the self-directed nature of the project, they choose their own protein to study and research so they can create their artistic response. They learn new creative skills as they explore protein depiction; from simple drawings to creating 3D objects and they must keep in mind the basics of protein structure and the science behind the principles. By working on an art and science project, we’ve had feedback that they have become more aware of career options and roles that straddle art and science, like graphic design or scientific illustration. It’s wonderful that the students are thinking beyond the current project to their career opportunities.

Deepti: For us, as scientists, projects like these provide a fresh perspective of our work. At MRC-LMB in Cambridge, Dr Ingo Greger, an eminent group leader, saw his structure represented in an artwork. He was so excited and was completely taken aback by the wonderful piece of art. It’s a great way to reconnect the scientific community to public audiences and inspire them to do more engagement.

David Armstrong: I agree, a lot of the artwork takes a step back from the detail-focused scientific perspective of a protein structure and looks at the societal context. For the scientists who have solved protein structures, it can be a valuable experience to see these represented in a different way and shared in an exhibition. For me it’s given a new dimension to the way I see proteins, a lot of our work is focused on checking the integrity and quality of the data and sometimes, the fact that a lot of the structures we are seeing are novel, can be lost. The art project brings back the importance of the work and what this data leads to. 

Deepti Gupta: Then there’s the evaluation of the project. We have two forms. We hand the first one out at the start and the other at the end. In this way, we measure their understanding, what they found interesting, any change in confidence, what surprised them or how we can improve. We analyse how their confidence level has changed in both art and science and how their interest has changed too.  We also have a teacher's evaluation form. As part of the exhibition, we have a short questionnaire at the end to gather feedback from visitors. In this way, we evaluate all the different aims and target audience groups.

We are now thinking of expanding the project in a sustainable way by consolidating the teaching resources that will help schools run the project and join the exhibition with little or no guidance from our side. We don’t want our capacity to be a limiting factor to participation. The resources can be found here - https://www.ebi.ac.uk/pdbe/pdb-art-resources

David Armstrong: Moving forward, we are also keen to develop an accessible digital archive of all the artworks, and so give them a life beyond the exhibition. Ideally, we will tie this together to the PDBe pages so that when a scientist searches for a protein structure, there will also be a link for them to visualize the artistic depiction of it, in an effort to intertwine the science and the art. 

A man in a dark blue jumper and pink, blue and white striped shirt stands next to a painting of a man and a woman who have colourful helix structures surrounding them

Ingo Gregor with the artwork "Connections" by Natalia Heirman, inspired by his work

Ingo Gregor with the artwork "Connections" by Natalia Heirman, inspired by his work

Four young people dressed in a school uniform are sat next to each other on a table and working on their art projects using paintbrushes and white paper

School students working on their artworks

School students working on their artworks

A female scientist with blonde hair and wearing a striped white and yellow top is standing at the front of a classroom giving a presentation. The presentation shows some artwork and has two green logos saying 'TGS' and 'PDBe' in the bottom left corner

A teacher from Thomas Gainsborough school explains more about PDBe

A teacher from Thomas Gainsborough school explains more about PDBe

Item 1 of 3
A man in a dark blue jumper and pink, blue and white striped shirt stands next to a painting of a man and a woman who have colourful helix structures surrounding them

Ingo Gregor with the artwork "Connections" by Natalia Heirman, inspired by his work

Ingo Gregor with the artwork "Connections" by Natalia Heirman, inspired by his work

Four young people dressed in a school uniform are sat next to each other on a table and working on their art projects using paintbrushes and white paper

School students working on their artworks

School students working on their artworks

A female scientist with blonde hair and wearing a striped white and yellow top is standing at the front of a classroom giving a presentation. The presentation shows some artwork and has two green logos saying 'TGS' and 'PDBe' in the bottom left corner

A teacher from Thomas Gainsborough school explains more about PDBe

A teacher from Thomas Gainsborough school explains more about PDBe