11 days later, sitting back in my office, fiddling with simulation parameters, listening to the BaseCamp playlist and I remember that I need to write up one last reflection about our time at the Locarno Film Festival! Honestly, the whole sequence: gushing about the beauty of the DNA helix to any artist who would listen, the dazed 3 am bus rides after dancing the nights away, watching strange comedies in the pouring rain beneath leopard-print ponchos, drinking espressos to stimulate ethical thinking, is so separated from my usual life that it feels like something that happened to somebody else. Yet I also keep looking back over the Instagram Highlits of the stories I posted (149 in total!), which show that, no, we were right there, living the movie magic. These spaces out of time and place hold a special place in my heart, and as the 10 days at BaseCamp wound down I felt an intense nostalgia for summer camps I attended as an adolescent and the first-year dorm experience during my batchelors. In these spaces with their intense social, physical and creative demands where we get an opportunity to test the edges of our endurance and learn by being thrown into the deep end and forcing ourselves to innovate outside our comfort zones.
The thing I was personally most worried about going into the festival was how our installations in the BaseCamp Popup would be received. For me, this was the most "deep end" of everything we did and I was so scared that we wouldn't be able to pull off the technical demands of our demonstrations and that people would see them and say "so what?" Imagine my surprise as people's eyes popped when the DNA precipitated from the strawberries, somebody told us that the droplet microscope in the shower was their favorite installation in the entire PopUp, and the labcoats we put up as canvasses for self-expression about science quickly filled up (though with a disappointing number of signatures). I also got in touch with my own internal pretentious artist putting together the installation descriptions, it was enlightening for me to look for the artistic symbolism in the scientific projects we undertook, and I'm really proud of the framing of everything as different aspects of "revealing the unseen by understanding your tools". This bridging of scientific techniques and literature class "but what does it really say?" is something I will hold onto and weave into my communication around my science going forward.
Something people keep asking me is what the specific takeaways I got from mixing art and science and if it was worth the time. This festival made us all better communicators of our science. I contemplated in our very first logbook post about if we would find a common language with artists and whether or not we could develop a productive dialogue. The answer to that turned out to be a resounding "OF COURSE", artists share with us a burning curiosity about the world around them, and I think we offered them new perspectives on what is possibilities exist in the world. The most obvious art-science connection we made was with "Project Solanium", the collaboration of two brothers which used hyperspectral imaging to turn the mundane world into a low-budget setting for a dystopian sci-fi future. We (mostly Maja who remains in contact with them) were able to provide them with answers to specific questions about how genetic engineering works, and the kinds of visuals that would fit best into their sequences where scientific progress is happening. We also met so many other attendees with scientific backgrounds of their own: a dancer and mathematician choreographing a piece based on the Fermat Theorem, a psychologist-turned-actress who described how the empirical methods she learned in her studies influence her studies of the characters she inhabits, a medical graphics programmer who moonlights as a film critic. Connecting with these characters gave us a wider perspective on how we can share our passions and let our backgrounds in physics and biology color and inspire our creative works.
The films themselves also gave us lots to think about! There were two films, "La Voie Royale" and "Guardians of the Formula", which specifically addressed scientific issues. The first about how the academic system can be exclusionary and the challenges faced by students of lower-class backgrounds as they navigate the challenges of intense study programs, and how the derision and microaggressions from their peers and mentors can lead to burnout. The second focused on the ethics of untested medical procedures on patients desperate for any sort of cure. It didn't solve the ethical dilemma, but brought to the surface the intensity and single-mindedness of the medical researchers pursuing new interventions, and the sometimes brutal outcomes faced by the patients and those around them. It would also be remiss of me to exclude everybody's favorite premier of the festival, "Nähtamatu võitlus" an absurdist mix of kung-fu, orthodox monks, and heavy metal which taught us that any combination can make a good film with a good eye for cinematography, choreography, and a banger soundtrack. Watch out, maybe soon I'll find a director willing to support my creative vision which mixes molecular simulation, the Arizona desert, and rainbow capitalism.
End result, Locarno was a crazy week that pushed me to my limits, and building bridges between arts and science this enrich both fields and I look forward to seeing what everybody touched by this experience creates in the future. I want to thank all the people involved in making BaseCamp a success: Stefano and Justine Knuchel and Chiara Ottavi who helped us find a space for our installations, the bar and kitchen staff who were so generous with our random requests for cooking oil and freezer space, the rest of the BaseCamp staff who made the place run so smoothly, and all the rest of the members of BaseCamp for making an unforgettable community. And of course, I have to thank NCCR MSE director Tom Ward and Art of Molecule curator/visionary/papal spy Ralf Stutzki for organizing this collaboration with BaseCamp and giving us this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pop our bubble.
A computational biophysicist hailing from the mountains and deserts of Utah in the Western US, currently living and working in Heidelberg, Germany as a postdoctoral scholar at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research and Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies. My scientific interests are broad, with bachelor’s degrees in biology and geology from Tufts University, and a PhD in “Biological Design” from Arizona State, I worked in fields ranging from protein biochemistry, to isotope biogeochemistry, to bioremediation of oil spills, before finding my niche writing software for designing, visualizing and modelling nanomachines created from DNA and RNA.
You’re probably familiar with DNA and RNA as molecules that store information in living systems, and have seen the beautiful double-helical structure of DNA. In the field of “molecular programming”, we mostly ignore genetic information, and instead use the molecular sequence to encode structures which self-assemble with nanoscale precision. My current focus is the ways in which we can interface DNA and RNA structures with other parts of living systems, specifically the lipid membranes that surround all cells.
One of the beauties of modern life is the ways that the internet shrinks distances and brings people with their diverse ideas together. I am a believer that the secret to great science is to work openly and collaboratively finding inspiration in each other’s brilliance. Towards this end, I co-host the Molpigs (MOLecular Programming Interest Group) podcast, a long form interview show where we talk with researchers ranging from PhD students who just published their first paper to legends of the field. I am also working on one small part of a collaborative textbook, The Art of Molecular Programming, where we hope to compile and distill the collective knowledge of the field into a single book.
When not threatening to throw my computer out the window, you can probably find me lost somewhere in the Odenwald or dancing around my kitchen making a giant pot of some new recipe.
I’m really excited to join this experiment in mixing art and science at Locarno! My former job as a theatrical lighting technician kept me fed through university and I miss those interactions with artists and performers. I’m looking forward to touching brains with the world’s up and coming artistic talent, sharing perspectives and ways of thinking between the arts and sciences.
You can find me online
Twitter – @Floppleton
Bluesky – @floppleton.bsky.social
LinkedIn – Erik Poppleton
GitHub – ErikPoppleton