The Art of Science: Mike Tyka Folds Proteins in Copper

Michael Tyka, KcsA Potassium Channel, Copper and Steel, 2011

Michael Tyka, KcsA Potassium Channel, Copper and Steel, 2011

Mike Tyka is not the first scientist to see artistic potential through his microscope, but he’s taken his love for the structure of protein molecules much farther than most – not only learning metalworking to make beautiful copper sculptures, but creating a studio/makerspace to do it in.

Tyka earned a PhD in Biophysics in 2007 and went  to work as a research fellow studying the structure and dynamics of protein molecules.  His particular area of interest is protein folding, and he has written computer simulation software to better understand the process.  Tyka says that “protein folding is the way our genetic code is interpreted from an abstract sequence of data into the functional enzymes and nano machines that drive our bodies.”

Tyka got interested in sculpture in 2009 when he helped design and construct Groovik’s Cube, a 35ft tall, functional, multi-player Rubik’s cube.  The cube will soon be on view at New Jersey’s Liberty Science Center as part of its Beyond Rubik’s Cube Exhibit.

Although the Groovik’s Cube project gave him his first taste of art-making, building a giant welded steel cube hardly prepared him to make exquisite replicas of complex biological forms.  So he took to the internet. “I learned almost everything I needed from youtube and from jeweler friends. I didn’t have a space to work so I got together with some friend and founded an artspace (Seattle’s ALTSpace) and acquired or built all the tools I needed.”

Tyka was obviously very familiar with the protein forms and knew how he wanted them to look. He chose to work in copper, a warm, soft metal, because he wanted the sculptures “to look smooth, soft, liquid. Proteins are not solid objects, they’re more like jelly, they move and vibrate. I wanted to reflect that property somehow.”

You can see Mike Tyka’s work at the Hutchinson Cancer Institute in Seattle and at Science House in New York, and see lots more photos on his website. You can follow him on twitter @mtyka

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