IVAN STEGIC: Hi there! You’re listening to ONE OF 8 BILLION, a podcast about all of us! I’m your host, Ivan Stegic. This podcast is supported by TEN7, a technology studio whose mission is to Make Things That Matter. Online at ten7.com
We all have a story, don’t we? We’ve all had successes and failures, joy and disappointment, love and sadness. And yet, we’ve all made it to here… to right now! Our stories are one amongst eight billion others… eight billion other stories, each of them unique, each of them grand in their own way, and each of them a window into the humanity that connects us all. ONE OF 8 BILLION tells life stories from around the world. Let's listen.
Our story today is about Lynn Fellman, an artist and writer who is using her talents to shine a light on another one of her passions: human genomic research! She has a series of books and artwork that are helping educate and inspire people about the potential of genomic research. Let’s listen!
IVAN: Welcome to ONE OF 8 BILLION, would you please introduce yourself.
LYNN FELLMAN: Hello, everyone. My name is Lynn Fellman. I'm in my miniature apartment in Old Town, Alexandria and I'm about a 15 minute walk from the Potomac, which I mention because it's a river city, just like Minneapolis. That's what I love about it. And I am completely immersed when I sign off with you folks in a book that I'm illustrating and writing and it's all about our genome.
IVAN: And for those of us who assumed that Alexandria was in Minnesota, tell us where Alexandria actually is.
LYNN: Oh, that's so wonderful you said that. Alexandria, Virginia. It's six miles due south of downtown D.C., The Mall, and the Potomac runs right up in between the land masses if you look at your map, we're snuggled up in there next to the Potomac.
IVAN: And tell me about why you called it a miniature apartment, because I know that there have been moves towards miniaturization, generally speaking, in the apartment industry. Is that what you have, a tiny one with tiny things that are in there? Or am I just imagining that?
LYNN: That's a really good imagination? No, this east coast, for decades, has been wildly expensive. So, it's just a small place, it's all but I'm happy in it because I'm on my screen all day. I have my pencils and paper all around me, but I'm essentially working with digital technology, so it's fine.
IVAN: Lynn, let's go back to where life began for you. Where were you born? What did that look like? Where in the world were you? Who welcomed you to the planet?
LYNN: I have the best memories ever in a nice house with a big yard that slopes down to Nine Mile Creek. And that winds through of course, as we know all through the suburbs around Minneapolis, Minnesota. And you could trot down there with your bare feet and get stuck in the mud and get bloodsuckers. I loved pulling up the bright yellow flowers, they call them cows lips or something.
LYNN: Yeah, I think I've got it not quite right, but for a little kid they were just these bright yellow flowers up close to my face. Yeah, I just loved color, always loved color. Remember those fat crayons? Did you have fat crayons?
LYNN: Yeah, those are much better than a big box of 50 because they were big and fat, yeah, getting close to my face. And then another really good memory because it syncs up with my grown up life was getting to the mailbox on just the day the National Geographic would arrive. Because those are the days that Leakeys were in Africa and they were finding hominids, fossils, and it couldn't have been more exciting to read about. Reading wasn't that great because it was usually men that would go out hunting and that just would tick me off. But the photography and the paintings of our early ancestors absolutely captivated me.
IVAN: And when you said Nine Mile Creek I think that's in Bloomington, south of the Twin Cities in Minnesota. We have so many creeks and lakes here. Did you spend your early childhood in Minnesota? And, did you know what you wanted to be when you were growing up and young?
LYNN: Yep, I lived forever in Minnesota. I just moved to this DC area nine years ago. But I was always a class artist. I was always drawing and coloring and very much had that identity. It's always been a core of my identity as an artist my whole life. Exactly though, how I would navigate what kind of art and how that would play out with what materials that's always been confounding. Yeah, because there's like strict definitions of what art is and what it isn't at least when I was growing up. But that's okay. I finally found my way.
IVAN: The thing I think of when you mentioned those cowslips and National Geographic was the commonality of the color yellow between the border of that magazine and those flowers and you've already mentioned color a number of times. What fascinates you about color?
LYNN: I think it's a real physical response. When I hear people talk about music and how they connect to it in so many different ways, and I do too, of course, but color to me is a real sensory experience. And I've made a point of spending most of my day surrounded by color, like looking at my large screen that I work on and other materials that I use. I have a lot of color around me all the time and just taking a break and going out for a walk. I'll just stand and look up at that blue sky just to absorb that color. It's gorgeous today, a bright blue sky that has that interesting blue color as we transition to cold weather. There's a cold weather blue, that's really distinct. And yeah, the yellow, it’s interesting you bring that up, because as soon as you said it, I went right to that band of yellow. Very distinctive.
IVAN: You mentioned that blue of the sky. I'm told that the sunlight and the sky in South Africa, where I grew up, is very different than the sky anywhere else in the world. And my wife is actually the one that told me that and I never noticed it until she mentioned it. And she's quite right. Have you noticed that difference as you've traveled across the world as well? What does looking at the sky in different places mean to you?
LYNN: Yes, you're right. Artists have talked about it, of course, over the centuries, especially impressionists, and that color of the sky in Arles, France, where Van Gogh was, and Cézanne and some of the others of course, they focused their work mostly on interpreting light and how light shaped form and the landscape. And so traveling the world, I know, you said that, but the first thing I left was Northern Light, something else artists often talk about. We prefer the Northern Light, it's more diffused. It's a little bit harder to work in, and a lot of bright light, so indirect light is good to work in.
But going around the world, yes, I can't bring anything quite to mind, as an example, but definitely the times of the day and with the latitude that you're on. And of course, if I can take that into understanding the evolution of human skin color, which is all about this largest organ of our body, which is skin, which has adapted to change as we moved into different latitudes, different landscapes, and to get the least out of the sunlight, depending where we were. And I wonder, too, with your background, as a South African, I illustrated a book with a scientist who wrote about the evolution of human skin color.
IVAN: Yeah, I wonder about that, as well. Also I would love to learn about where you went to school. And I would love to learn about how you became interested in science and the overlap between science and art, and talk about skin color and the evolution of that, as you've just described. Tell us about what your high school days looked like and where you went to college and what you studied so we can understand what your background is, and how you got to where you are now.
LYNN: High school was at Edina High School. And one thing I really liked about it was that the homecoming king and queen were selected for being smart people. They weren't the prettiest. They weren't particularly jocks, you know what I mean? It was really cool. And so that's kind of my big takeaway. There was a small group of us who had taken art classes, probably since middle school, junior high and by the time we got to junior year in high school, we had dwindled to just really a small group of us and they wouldn't let us have another art class in our senior year. But we demanded, and we got it. And I'm laughing because it was so important to have that art all through all the years that I remember. It just was such a feeling of an identity and what was important and I wanted to keep at it.
As soon as I left high school, I went to a small school there in St. Paul, and majored in art, Hamline University, and eventually found my way back to the University of Minnesota and graduated with a degree in studio arts, with an emphasis on drawing and painting. I wanted to get in the world and make money. So I worked for a couple of years at what was then the poor second class, lowly cousin of Dayton's… Target. I was in the advertising department and I drew and I sketched and I did ads and all kinds of things, and then I went out on my own. And I've been self-employed ever since my mid-20s and it's been tough, but it's been glorious too.
Can I just take a leap though, all those years working on my own, pretty good clients, save some money and then I started to just get this feeling that I was missing something, I was really missing something. It felt like a hunger. It felt like I needed beauty. I needed ideas. I needed to know what in the heck was going on in the world because I had my nose in my work doing design and illustration, I learned animation, I'd send out the invoice, I'd get the next job, it was great. But it was an overwhelming feeling.
And when I started to pay attention, oh, my gosh, they had sequenced the human genome. And then there was a company where you could buy their kit, take a little swab in your mouth, send it off, and they would give your genetic ancestry, which they were tracking from all over the world. It connected to everything I loved about human evolution, when I was a little kid.
But now it was this fantastic, sort of handshake, collaboration with the bones and the fossils that the archaeologists and anthropologists have been studying. But now we have the genetics to get that full story that was really a big part of our story, which had been lost to time. And as soon as I started to get into that, and I got my results back, no surprise, because I'm, German, Swedish. I’m pretty much your standard. But I didn't care about that at all. It was this amazing story that the scientists were telling us as they went out in the world and they sequenced the genomes of people up in the mountains and down in the valleys, people who hadn't moved for generations. And they could really track in these migrations routes that our early ancestors from 50, 60, 70, 100,000 years ago started to make coming out of Africa. And as soon as I saw that, I just knew I had to do something with it. I had to do new art. And so, I was off and running to really what has been a whole new career for me.
IVAN: And how long ago was that, that you started getting interested in the genome and in pursuing what you just described?
LYNN: It was 2004. And at that time, evolution was the big topic of the day, there was a lot of fighting about it. PZ Myers was in the thick of it, you had him on your podcast a while ago. He's wonderful.
IVAN: Yeah, PZ was so great. Yes.
LYNN: Oh, he’s really good. So he was really at the forefront, defending science and biology and the wonder of it all. And so, I decided that if I was going to do this artwork, however it would unfold, I needed to understand the science. So I learned from PZ and I read magazines, and I started to go to scientific conferences. And I talked to the geneticist at the University of Minnesota. The folks there were like, really on the cutting edge of a lot of the research.
And then in 2005, is when the Genographic Project started with one of the very early direct to consumer DNA test kits, which is what I mentioned, that's what I used. Totally jumped in, and started to do artwork and I did a lot of things with some of the new media that was coming out, the new printing processes, so I could pull my work out of the computer. So it was always this combination of learning the science. How to interpret it in an interesting way that told a story visually, but also pulled it out of my computer so people could have the tangible thing on their hands. I printed on silk. I printed on paper. But something else that I started to do that felt really good, is I wanted to write about it and explain more of the story, that just couldn't all be in a picture. And that's what I'm doing now these many years later is really combining illustrations, with a character in a story that is also behind it with the real science that's going on today.
IVAN: I think it's amazing that the genome, what you've described is both the same, in a way, for every human on the planet, but also uniquely distinct for every single human on the planet. That dichotomy still blows my brain, that there is a pattern to this genome that everyone shares that makes us human, that makes us quintessentially connected to each other and yet, there are these different implementations where, oh, I might have good eyesight, and you might have great eyesight. And that part just blows my mind. I am fascinated to hear about how the genome influences and informs your art and how it's done that for the last almost 20 years.
LYNN: I knew you're going to go straight away to that because of the theme of your podcast. And that's exactly what it's about. And you described it in a wonderful way. Okay, so here's another way to think about it. We get half our genome from mom and half our genome from dad and that combines into a unique one of a kind genome. Every baby born has their own unique genome from that marvelous combination. And that genome has 6.4 billion base pairs in it. And of all those base pairs, they're thinking 99.9% is similar across all of the human species, everybody around, alive today, maybe 99.5%, somewhere within there. But within that, let's just say that .1%, so this gets to this unique stuff. So like we said, this similarity of our species, how we're all connected, so much the same, but within that .1% of those 6 billion base pairs, leaves a whole lot of room for variation.
Something else. So we know today we've got about 19,000 protein coding genes and if you do a direct to consumer kit, that's what they will sequence, are the main genes inside the nucleus of ourselves.
IVAN: Every cell has it. Every cell in your body. That’s insane, isn’t it?
LYNN: Yeah, but what they're doing now, which is even more amazing, is that with advanced technology, they're sequencing all the non-coding regions, and they're going into the non-coding regions of our chromosomes. But they're also sequencing the mitochondrial genome, which is inside the cytoplasm in our cell. And so where the science is really going, super exciting into the microbiome. So you put those three together, those three locations, that's a huge set of data. And within all of that’s where comes the variation that makes me a short person, with grayish eyes, and someone else, a different skin color, and all of that, and someone else who has synesthesia. All of these fantastic things that make us unique. Yep.
IVAN: Lynn, I am inspired by the wonder you have of the genome and of the work that you do. I wish I could bottle it and bring it to everyone so that everyone can experience it as well. I wish that more people had that wonder because it feels like we need that in the world today. And I appreciate that. And thank you for speaking of the genome and the work that you do in such inspiring terms.
LYNN: You're welcome.
IVAN: I worry about the negative parts of having all of this information out there. Do you ever think about that, and all this incredible technology that exists and how we're documenting ourselves and our humanity? And how the ones that don't have the wonder that perhaps you have might treat that?
LYNN: Yeah, it's a little bit like, Come on already. How hard can this be to move that technology along so we can have access to our data? And pretty much more or less, keep it, protect it? And then share it in ways that we want to, have those choices? Maybe we’re a ways off from that and in some ways, once our data is out there, it's never private again. But as people who want to advance to understand how this can really apply to improve our lives, save our life maybe, at least just have good healthy well-being. Come on, let's move it along and really make it available to us. It's inching along but I think we need to really demand it as consumers, and we've got that power. I think we can make it happen.
Now, when you speak to diversity and really making it equitable, that's been a big problem with the Human Genome Project. They started out with just a few genomes, rudimentary technology. So that's the excuse. But what's happening now that it's really a good thing is there is a really good consortium of scientists from all over the world, really nice international collaboration, and they're sequencing people from all over the world to get out that diversity, to really understand more about the human story, where we came from, how to improve our health, and to offer people who aren't in that reference as genome, as it stands now based on sort of a limited vocabulary of genomic variation, to help a much diverse population when they need it.
IVAN: How far into that work are we? Are we very early on in collecting that data? Have we been able to learn anything additionally?
LYNN: It was just announced a year ago that they had sequenced all of our chromosomes end to end. So that was the T to T consortium, telomere to telomere. Hey folks look up the word telomere, it’s really cool. So there's that. So that's basic research. And now the pan genome consortium is just getting started. So we're going to start to see that rollout in the next five to 10 years, maybe faster than 10 years, I'd say five years. They're sharing that data. It's open access. And that's supported by our tax dollars as citizens in the United States who pay taxes that go to the National Institute of Health, which helps to sort out all of those grants to folks like that.
IVAN: Is the Pan Genome Project global? It sounds like it's funded in the U.S. by the National Institute of Health, but are we generating and collecting data from all over the planet?
LYNN: Yes, it is an international collaboration with scientists from other countries. Absolutely. Yep.
IVAN: What are you working on right now? I understand you have a new grant.
LYNN: It's a continuation of my character, who is an artist who loves science, and she's gone on a journey to understand her genome. And it's based loosely on the Joseph Campbell Hero's Journey. But what she finds out about her own genome, she can tell everyone about it. And it's not only some of the scary stuff, and not only encountering some of the naysayers, but she finds allies, like genomic counselors and then she has a sort of a surprise ending where she shares some new art and some new stories to help everyone understand.
So that's my character. Her name is Artist. And I've got a coloring book that I published on my own. And I'm working on an interactive digital book now that's more about her story. But the grant that I got starts early next year at Cold Spring Harbor Lab and that's up on Long Island, and Cold Spring Harbor Lab is a very first genomics research laboratory and center of the United States. It was started in 1890. And it's hosted scientific conferences throughout the decades, right along into the 21st century. And I've been going there for conferences and showing my work for quite a few years. But they just recently offered an artist residency. So I applied for that and I applied to do a new adventure for my character, who shall go to the lab, she'll talk to the scientists, but the ones she wants to talk to are the ones who are working on helping plants adapt to climate change. And there's one fellow who's really working with flowering plants, to help them understand how their mechanisms work to adapt to climate change. So that's what I'll be doing. And then I'll write a story about her and I'll write about the scientists and it'll be line drawings that will be published as a coloring book.
IVAN: How exciting.
LYNN: Yeah. I’m excited.
IVAN: How long does the residency last?
LYNN: It’s not very long. It's only three weeks. So when I go there, it's all about meeting people, talking to the scientists, and going into their library. They've got this fantastic library with original papers and manuscripts and photographs, all that kind of stuff. So I'll be doing that recording. I'll need some tips from you guys on how to record. And then I go away back to my little studio here and I'll write and draw and develop that book. So it should be out by the end of 2023.
IVAN: How exciting. I look forward to seeing that get published. Please let us know when it's available.
LYNN: Thanks. It's always for the general audience, for just anybody who's curious about their genome, and it can come across to a lot of folks as just for kids but it's for everyone, just like a picture book always is. You know, how we as grownups love those picture book stories, too. So, I really do write it for everyone.
IVAN: I secretly love those picture book stories. Honestly. They’re usually written and illustrated in such a way that they are easy to understand. And the clarity and the brevity is just something that we're missing occasionally in our day to day lives and seeing that kind of clarity really, it really is engaging. So I kind of like them, honestly,
LYNN: Oh, boy. If you can't keep it simple, and to the point, but still have a little bit of sense of wonder in it, you really can't communicate the idea.
IVAN: Richard Fineman talked about it. If you can't explain the concept to a child, then you don't understand it yourself. And that's such a great tenet to live by.
LYNN: Yeah, I agree. Yeah, we're all first time students. We're the first generation, you and me, everyone alive today. We’re the first generation to have our genome data. We're the first ones.
IVAN: That’s pretty cool.
LYNN: So we're exploring this together. Yeah, we're in grade school together.
IVAN: Yeah, we're all explorers, aren’t we?
LYNN: Genome explorers. That's us.
IVAN: That's awesome. So your website says that you are Artist Author for Genomics. How many artists authors for genomics are there in the world?
LYNN: You know what, I think there's more than we think, because we all know about STEM, right?
LYNN: But they've added that “a” in there for STEAM, which includes the arts. So there is funding for arts, for scientists and artists to work together in a lot of different ways.
IVAN: That's wonderful. When you think about all of the people on the planet, all 8 billion of us, you think that you are one of them, and I am one of them, and there are so many of us. How does that make you feel? What do you think of when you think of that vastly huge number?
LYNN: it makes me feel like a person is a person no matter how small. I have a voice and I have something to say no matter how small it is. But we add that to all of the voices around us who want hope and who want a future and we want to get through these tough times. I think that feels expansive, and mind blowing. And I also feel like how we've evolved with these big old brains, we’re super smart. I think we just need to take hold of this big brain and control of ourselves a little bit and maybe just not have so many people on the planet. Come on. It's really making it a big problem for our climate.
IVAN: It is.
LYNN: Yeah, so it's both ways. It's the small and the large of it, as you say. It’s this interesting paradox we’re stuck in right now.
IVAN: Yeah. What do you hope you'll see in your lifetime that you haven't seen just yet?
LYNN: I hope we all get to meet the aliens. I think we're going to get to meet them. They're going to be a little microbe. There's going to be a little something stuck in a little rock somewhere. And if it's not on Mars, it'll be on the moon. Oh, yeah. I think we're close. I think we're close to meeting the alien.
IVAN: I love it. So you're hoping we meet those aliens. I was just listening to, gosh, it was the latest edition of the BBC World Global podcast and they were talking about a hypothesis that there used to be life on Mars, that they were microbes that existed potentially, and that what we could be looking for on Mars are the remnants of that and that we might be able to find those remnants in the rocks and in the archeology of Mars as it is now. It was a fascinating story. But that's the kind of alien life that potentially existed on Mars many millions of years ago.
LYNN: Yes. And wouldn't it be amazing if, in that tiny life form, even if it's a fossil, there would be a fourth domain of life. So right now on planet Earth, we have three domains of life and that realization is really quite recent. So Archaea was the most recent sort of discovery and that Archaea were found in these little crevices of rock way deep inside the earth and in those vents in the ocean. And we're still finding these very ancient, extremophiles is another name for them in Archaea. So if we do find something on Mars. Wow.
LYNN: Yeah, they are a different domain and maybe if they've got a little bit different code, okay, that's pretty wild.
IVAN: Wow, I'm excited to find out more about that. Wow, I'm looking forward to aliens as well now. Yes.
LYNN: Okay. Yeah.
IVAN: Bring them on.
LYNN: And they'll have a story inside their code. It won't be a picture and it won't be a language that can talk to us but it will definitely be a vocabulary. And we'll all get the hang of it. Wouldn't that be cool?
IVAN: That'd be so cool. And what a great story it would tell of all the millions of years and all of the differences and similarities between the new domain and the ones we have now.
LYNN: Yeah, a real connection to the cosmos.
IVAN: Certainly. It’s been wonderful talking to you, Lynn. I was so glad to learn about the overlap between science and art and all of the work that you are doing. If people want to find out more, how do they do that?
LYNN: I have a website, lynnfellman.com, and that has my new and current work that I'm working on in my book. I have another website called Fellman Studio and that has some examples of some of the early work that I developed all about human migration and human evolution. Yeah, please check them out. You can find a lot of art and some stories out there.
IVAN: Very good. Thank you so much for being on the show. It was amazing talking to you. I hope we get to do that again soon.
LYNN: Oh, I was thrilled to be here. And now let's go outside and look at that blue sky. It's amazing.
IVAN: I hope you’ll join us in the next episode of ONE OF 8 BILLION… when we hear from choir director and vocal performance coach, Mo Field:
MO FIELD: I can be a very intense person at times, and I use that intensity to examine the human condition, examine my own emotions and really put those into lyrics and music. I'd say one of the other really cool things about it is the idea of synesthesia, where I hear sound and it directly relates to emotional experience for me. I hear the sound of a seventh quarter, a major seventh chord, and sounds like softness and sensuality. I hear chord of some description, and there's still something compelling about the pain that's in it.
This has been ONE OF 8 BILLION, a podcast about all of us... online at 1of8b.com. Join us again next time as we listen to one of eight billion other stories!
This is episode 146 of ONE OF 8 BILLION. It was recorded on October 11, 2022 and first published on November 9, 2022. Audio length is 33 minutes. Transcription by Roxanne Chumucas. Summary, highlights and editing by Brian Lucas. Music by Lexfunk. Produced by Jonathan Freed.