As USC’s first two female University Professors (a title honoring the trans-disciplinary research of senior professors), molecular biologist Jean Chen Shih and I were frequently seated together. As we each explained our research to each other—my work at Labyrinth and her pioneering work on a crucial pair of brain enzymes, the MAO A and MAO B genes (monoamine oxidase), that help control aggression and anxiety in mice and men—we began to envision a unique collaboration. We proposed an interactive science education project that would not only explain the importance of her research (as providing the first tangible evidence for a biological basis of aggressive behavior) but that would also teach basic principles in molecular biology and encourage young people to enter the field of science.
With funding from USC’s Provost (Lloyd Armstrong), we went ahead with the project, each bringing talented assistants from our respective research teams and expanding our own knowledge and transdisciplinary range in the process. It turned out to be one of our most satisfying collaborations. I brought Kristy Kang, who had also directed the Einstein project on which she shared my frustration that we had not really used the visual language of animation to explain difficult scientific concepts. But now working with Debra Isaac and Aaron Biscombe from USC’s DADA program, we were able to generate powerful images that were both beautiful and rigorously accurate—a dimension emphasized in the Adobe promotional movie. And by comparing these images with the cartoonish animations by Jean’s son Jack (who also had a degree from DADA and was then one of the lead animators on South Park), we reminded users that both sets of images were representations, which are equally crucial in art and science.
I also brought Rosemary Comella, who adapted her interface design from Cultivating Pasadena, adding a glossary that was accessible from any screen and proved to be absolutely crucial. Jean brought her graduate student Kate Revill, who was essential on the glossary. Jean and I wrote the script together, basing it on her lecture notes but making it more accessible by bringing in relevant ideas from the humanities, including my own work on violent representations. To deal with controversial topics like cloning, stem cell research and conflicts between religion and science, we added literary examples (like Blake’s Little Lamb Who Made Thee and Shelley’s Frankenstein) and a quiz that teachers could use to generate class discussion.
Given that Jean was born in China and raised in Taiwan, she is committed to fostering an exchange of knowledge between the East and the West, particularly in science education. I share this interest, having recently been instrumental in establishing an educational exchange program between USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and the Communication University of China. Thus, not only did we produce a Mandarin version of A Tale of Two MAO Genes, but Kristy and Rosemary taught workshops in Taiwan to show media scholars, scientists and professionals how to make similar projects.