Kindra Crick and her DNA sculpture

Alex Crick

Q&A: Francis Crick’s granddaughter on her genomic sculpture

Kindra Crick, granddaughter of Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA’s structure, is one of more than 20 artists contributing sculptures to an auction fundraiser for a building at the new Francis Crick Institute. The auction is being organized by Cancer Research UK and will be held at Christie’s in London on 30 September. The auction will continue online until 13 October.

The new biomedical research institute, named for the Nobel laureate who died in 2004, aims to develop prevention strategies and treatments for diseases including cancer. It is a consortium of six partners, including Cancer Research UK.

Earlier this year, Cancer Research UK asked about two dozen artists—including Chinese superstar Ai Weiwei—to answer the question “What’s in your DNA?” through a sculpture based on DNA’s double helix structure. Each artist received a blank slate—a double helical sculpture—on which to craft their answer. Most of the sculptures were then displayed around London along an “art trail.”

Now, the sculptures will be auctioned off to raise money for the institute. Kindra Crick, who is 39, recently spoke with ScienceInsider about the effort, and her DNA sculpture titled What Mad Pursuit. (This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

Q: “What’s in your DNA?” How did you build your sculpture around that question?

A: When I was given the theme, I thought this was a wonderful project for me, considering my family history. Also, in my own art practice I try to express the wonder and the process of scientific inquiry. This draws on my backgrounds; in molecular biology from when I was at Princeton [University], and in art while going to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

I was influenced by my grandparents, Francis Crick and Odile Crick. He was the scientist and she was the artist. My grandfather worked on elucidating the structure of DNA, and my grandmother, Odile, was the one to draw the first image of DNA. The illustration was used for the 1953 paper that my grandfather wrote with James Watson. So, there’s a rich history there that I can draw from, in terms of what’s in my DNA.

Q: What are some of the themes you explore?

A: Because biology is visually rich as a tradition, I thought to myself, “What can I use to express this intermingling of art and science, and capture that unpredictability and mystery of discovery?”

I started with handwritten notations. A lot of the photographs I see of my grandfather are in front of a chalkboard with notations on it. I had also been given a copy of my grandfather’s letter to my dad [Michael Crick], which has lovely writings, and one of the first images of DNA. In my sculpture, the DNA strand that is rising is this black, dusty chalkboard with quickly scribbled notations. The chalkboard represents science in terms of layers of ideas, and the beauty of the diagram.

On the complementary strand, I have this vibrant blue, with a golden helix. I have these growing, abstracted forms that spread and mutate up and down the sculpture. It’s an abstraction of cellular life, or in my practice, I use this imagery to communicate infectious ideas. Not only can people pass on their genetics, but also their ideas, which metaphorically grow and mutate.

Q: What does examining science through art allow you to do?

A: Artists and scientists are both curious about the world and want to answer fundamental questions. When you’re using artwork as your medium, you leave things open-ended.

Art allows me to delve into questions that may not be answered yet. It simultaneously lets me create and explore without being tied to a specific method. I am able to focus on one specific thing, exaggerate it, glorify it, and, ultimately, call people’s attention to it.

Q: What is your hope for the future of the Francis Crick Institute?

A: When they had asked us if they could name the institute after my grandfather, I looked at their mission and I was inspired. Their entire focus is to speed the pace of discovery. To take six of the world’s leading medical research organizations and create this very ambitious mission to get what happens in the laboratory and specifically have it be goal-oriented to helping the lives of real patients; that’s important to me.

On a personal note, my grandfather passed away from cancer, followed by [my] grandmother and aunt. So when they invited me to work on this project, I said: “Yes!”

Q: Anything else?

A: There’s going to be another item at the auction.

My father, Michael Crick, had been working on a project with Craig Venter at Human Longevity Inc. [in San Diego, California]. Venter had offered to sequence my grandfather’s genome, and the intention is to put it into public domain. They came up with this wonderful idea to create an image: The Crick Genome Portrait. It’s an atlas of my grandfather’s genome. It’s a linear map of the 23 chromosomes and also includes his mitochondrial DNA. It’s a single edition piece of artwork, and it’s signed by Venter.