2020 Best Drawing/Painting – Isabel Holtan

The Universe Inside of Us

The glowing, almost spiky things you see here are cells—human dermal fibroblasts to be exact. I was in my lab, studying them for their extracellular matrix (ECM), when I took the reference photo for this image. Fibroblasts are the cells that make up our connective tissues, so they have very apparent ECMs. As I was looking at these cells it really stuck out to me that the nuclei, where all of our genetic information is contained, look just like little universes. The cells were backlit in the microscope, and the way the light shined through was just stunning, creating little galaxies in the heart of what makes us ourselves. It really spoke to me because I believe that everyone has unlimited potential, and a parallel like this between our DNA and the vastness of space completely exemplifies that to me.

The light wash of blue in the background is laminin—a molecule that the plate was treated with because it is used in constructing the cells’ ECM and therefore encourages their growth. The spiky and stretched bluish-purple outer regions of each cell is the extracellular matrix, which is what keeps the cells attached to the plate and other cells. In the body, they would all be connected to each other via the ECM, like that diagonal strand in the middle. The dark blue aggregates in the center of each cell, some of them with white dots of light filtering through, are the nuclei. The glowing white blobs with pink edges are likely air bubbles—I just included them in my painting because I think they look cool.