VCU students to educate public about mitochondrial disease, encourage healthy living with Science Museum of Virginia exhibit

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An upcoming exhibit at the Science Museum of Virginia will feature Virginia Commonwealth University faculty and students' multimedia projects that aim to raise awareness of mitochondrial disease and the importance of healthy lifestyle choices in maintaining energy in our day-to-day-lives.

The three-month long exhibit, "Bioenergetics: Art Meets Gentle Science in Sickness and in Health," opens March 17 and will display art illustrations, sculptures, movies, computer games, teaching modules and personal reflections created by 16 students from VCU's School of Engineering and School of the Arts. Pieces in the exhibit focus on "bioenergetics," the study of the flow of energy in living systems within specialized cellular compartments known as "mitochondria."

"The visceral and visual expressions in the exhibition inspires guests to learn how energy, produced by their cells' mitochondria, is a balance of adequate diet and exercise" says Eugene G. Maurakis, Ph.D., museum scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia. "This exhibition is unique in its use of science, technology, engineering, art and graphics to guide people from multiple viewpoints to understand that a person's energy level directly relates to their health."

Mitochondria are the "energy powerhouses" of the cell, generating more than 90 percent of the energy needed by the body to sustain life and support growth. Yet mitochondrial dysfunction is at the core of numerous diseases that affect energy production, according to Shilpa Iyer, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering and organizer of the bioenergetics project at VCU.

"We created this exhibition to increase awareness in our community because recent scientific reports have highlighted the increasing proportion of childhood obesity and mitochondrial diseases, leading to energy failures," she said. "An urgent cell-to-society integrative approach is needed to address this problem, to increase awareness for improving nutrition and bioenergetics of young children and their families, and ultimately improve the quality of life."

As part of the exhibit, Jessica Soumphontphakdy, a senior in the Department of Kinetic Imaging of the School of the Arts, will be presenting clips from a documentary she shot with an interdisciplinary team that depicts the lives of patients and families living with mitochondrial disease.

Soumphontphakdy said she hopes the documentary lets more people know about the challenges facing people with the disease.

"I admire each and every person I have interviewed," she said. "Mitochondrial disease is a legitimate disease that some doctors do not acknowledge is real. One of the biggest struggles [patients] have had to endure is finding the right doctor and treatment. One family told me a shocking story about how they had to go to an ER while out of town. The doctors at that ER had no idea what mitochondrial disease was and had to go Google it. Because of this, they have difficulty traveling and have to carry letters stating each step on how to take care of them."

Jacob Kreiner, a computer science major, worked on several of the exhibits, including a simulation of cellular respiration that shows users the effects of differing food intake levels and exercise on their energy and fat levels. He is also providing the music that will accompany the documentary exhibit.

"Knowing that my work will soon be available for the public to see in a recognized facility has pushed me to create some of the best work that I have ever made," he said. "The information that our exhibit seeks to empower people with is very important to me. By allowing this information to reach a wider audience, it will encourage healthier lifestyles and more informed perspectives on how the human body produces energy."

Caroline Bivens works on a three-dimensional representation of the inner parts of the mitochondria.
Caroline Bivens works on a three-dimensional representation of the inner parts of the mitochondria.

The exhibit is the culmination of a collaborative project launched by like-minded faculty in the Schools of Engineering and Arts to devise an approach that would take advantage of different perspectives and training to educate the public about bioenergetics, mitochondria and healthy lifestyle.

The bioenergetics project has been supported primarily by a grant from VCU's Quest Innovation Fund, which provides support to pilot initiatives that help advance the university's strategic plan, Quest for Distinction.

Additional support for the project has come from the Alice T. and William H. Goodwin Jr. Endowment for Engineering Education; Summer at da Vinci Works Program; the School of Engineering; the School of the Arts; the Pollak Society; and the Central Virginia chapter of Patients and Families of the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation.

Raj Rao, Ph.D., co-organizer of the bioenergetics project and an associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering, said "the project stemmed from a 2013 report that found nearly 40 percent of children suffered from energy deficiency disorders."

As part of the project, which was conceived by Iyer, Rao and Sarah Faris, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Arts, a team of hybrid faculty and 16 students worked with experts from the Science Museum of Virginia and patient advocates with the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation to develop the creative approaches to educating the public that will be on display in the exhibit.

"Input (food) and output (exercise, movement) all affect how efficiently our mitochondria and bodies handle energy," Faris said. "We can maximize our wellness, our energy, and our fitness by learning how diet and exercise affect our bodies. We can use that information to make good decisions that affect health and well-being, instead of just taking someone's word for it and missing the nuances that translate into behavioral empowerment."

Iyer encouraged children and families, as well as faculty and students, to attend the exhibit to learn more about the art and science of living well in a fun and meaningful way.

"People will learn about the meaning of bioenergetics, the study of flow of energy in the living systems within the mitochondria,” she said, “as well as understand mitochondrial diseases from a patient’s perspective."


Feature image at top: Grace Chafin and Michael Todd work on a DNA sculpture that will depict the structure and shape of mitochondrial genome.