Picture An Embryo

As part of an NIH-funded project, Bradley Smith, associate dean for creative work, research and graduate education at the University of Michigan, posted a collection of optical images and MRI scans of human embryos to the web. Intended for a clinical audience, Smith talks about the unexpected response he got from the public.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Joining us now is Flora Lichtman, our multimedia editor. Hi, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: What have you made for us this week?

LICHTMAN: This is a fascinating one, I think.

FLATOW: They're all fascinating.

LICHTMAN: Oh, OK. Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: This one, really, I had to give a lot of thought to. It comes from Bradley Smith, who's in the School of Art and Design at Michigan - at the University of Michigan. He gets a PhD in anatomy and sort of specializes in medical visualization. And back in the 1990s, the NIH asked him - funded him to make a collection of images of human embryos, and he thought that he was doing this sort of for the clinical community. You know, the idea was to make - take MRI scans of embryos and view these are from a museum - by the way, the museum of - in D.C., of Health and Medicine - and to make them accessible for medical students and so they won't degrade. And it turned out that when he put them online, which is part of his funding agreement, that he got all sort of, you know, strong reaction from the public.

FLATOW: Right, the videos of the embryo.

LICHTMAN: The videos of the embryos. He does sort of time lapse of human development, and it was really fascinating to watch, going from this sort of little hard to, you know, nondescript ball to what you would recognize...

FLATOW: As an embryo.

LICHTMAN: ...as an embryo or a fetus.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow talking with Flora Lichtman about our Video Pick of the Week, and it's a - videos of embryos, all different kinds of embryos. So you got the film, the footage...

LICHTMAN: Right. So...

FLATOW: ...and you put your own video together out of this.

LICHTMAN: Right. So he has this whole collection of different embryos at different stages, and they - you measure age of embryo based - its postovulatory age. So it's very hard to tell exactly when the embryo was conceived, but you can kind of estimate based on ovulation. And so you look and you can see after 28 days what it looks like, after 42 days. And he's put together, actually, these sort of amazing time lapses so you can watch these changes over time.

And in talking to Smith, he's really thought a lot about what - why we have such a strong reaction to looking at embryos, and he's found this firsthand. I mean, and he gets emails all the time and sort of unpacks these questions, like, you know, is it - when you look at these pictures, does it strike you as more human or less human than you would have imagined, he asks. This is what he asked audience when he shows them. What is your experience with seeing these pictures in the past? You know, he said imagine 300 or 400 years ago, would - how would people imagine what an embryo is? This is a technologically...

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.

LICHTMAN: ... mediated experience.

FLATOW: And not only that, he's taken the technology faster - further, as you show. He's done MRIs, right?

LICHTMAN: That's right. So...

FLATOW: Never seen before.

LICHTMAN: No one had ever done this before, and you can see the sort of whole internal structures. You can watch organs develop, the neural tube. And I think, you know, he made the point, this - it didn't break much new ground scientifically. People understood a lot of this already, but now it gives medical students, for example, an opportunity to look through and ask questions without actually destroying an embryo to answer them.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And it was a new experience for you to take these and put these together? He really hadn't this in any...

LICHTMAN: Yeah. So he has a website which has most of these images up there, and we have a link to it on our website if you want to keep perusing or learn more about the different stages. But yeah, it became a challenge to sort of figure out what the story was. But the other interesting thing about Doctor Smith is that, you know, he did this years ago, and he still gets like thousands of hits per week. People are just fascinated by these images, but he also has taken them and turned them into art pieces.

FLATOW: Yeah, and his artwork ends the video, and it's a very thoughtful video. You know, you've done some that are just splashy. This is a very thoughtful one.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: I...

FLATOW: Gets you thinking about it.

LICHTMAN: It took a lot of thought to figure out exactly, you know, what I was looking at, and why I was having a reaction to these pictures.

FLATOW: Yeah. And so it's our Video Pick of the Week. It's up there on our website @sciencefriday.com. Go to take a look and then have your own reaction to it and leave us a message there on our website, or you can tweet us all week and leave us a message also that way. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

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