Article 1: Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic

By Rita Charon

March 22, 2021
Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic

As a professor of biomedical engineering and director of research for stem cell and tissue engineering at Columbia University, Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic has a profound and poetic approach to her work.

"The world is so beautifully connected, everything is connected to everything. You just need to find a way to say it."

 

Narratives of Discovery

How do scientists think? Where do their discoveries come from? Many scientists and aesthetic theorists realize that the creativity of science parallels the creativity of the artist—all of them seeing before they know, reaching for that which can only be imagined, and perhaps only by themselves.

Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic is a tissue engineer, internationally renowned for her synthesis of human tissue from biologic antecedents cultivated on biomatrices. She “grows” cartilage for joint repair, bone for facial bone reconstruction, and human myocytes for reconstitution of infarcted heart tissue. As a child in Serbia, Gordana was drawn to music and visual art and might have gone on to conservatory or studio art training. Science is fortunate that her brilliant chemical engineer/inventor father invited her toward the sciences. I think she practices her science as if it were an art—and in her hands, it is an art.

A page from the Codex Atlanticus in Milan, Italy, by Leonardo da Vinci
A page from the Codex Atlanticus

Leonardo is her hero. She travels to Milan, Venice, and Seattle to find original pages from his Codex Atlanticus and Codex Leicester. We looked together at a photo I took in Milan of one page of the Codex Atlanticus.

Nestled among diagrams of mechanical parts and side- by-side with lists of things he wanted to move from one house to another is a palimpsest of expressive human profiles. All is one in this mind that has inspired Gordana throughout her life. She has learned from Leonardo the simultaneity of thought, the surprise of attention, the dividends of letting the mind go free.

Gordana creates teams. She seeks out not just other bioengineers but radiation physicists, developmental embryologists, MBAs, biochemists, enzymologists, lung physiologists, transplant cardiologists: 

This accidental, unexpected sort of new experience, it happens, I believe, more often if you work at the interfaces of disciplines. If you are in a very well-established, old scientific field, then things are a little bit more predictable. There is much less chance that you can go off tangent in a new direction. Many of us live outside our zone of comfort most of the time. And then you hear a little thing that inspires you to try something complete different, so it's much easier to slide down this path into something surprising. Everything is… It's more like sliding planes. They move. They move relative to each other. - Gordana

A diagram of Collagen II and Collagen IX
A diagram of Collagen II and Collagen IX

I showed her the diagram of Collagen II and Collagen IX from one of her papers.

I tell her that she is not a Collagen II but a Collagen IX, extending out from the well-ordered Collagen II fibrils in neat rows to make contact with neighboring tissues, questions, fields, and minds to connect, to engage gears, to spark discovery.

She expanded on her notion of “sliding planes that move relative to one another,” a concept that has guided her work for years. The idea first visited her upon reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, a series of four novels that represent complex events in Egypt from three protagonists’ perspectives. She continues, Each of the sliding planes is an entity, a body of knowledge in some way. Then they sort of travel past each other, and then occasionally they would just somehow get into sync and connect with each other. The first time when I really started, which was many years ago, my thinking about the sliding planes was related to Alexandria Quartet. This is how I understood the book. So there were three sliding planes that are three different perspectives, and I mean just in simple words you can say this is like the breadth and width and depth. And then the fourth plane was the time. That is how the book was constructed, I believe, and this is how we live. This is how we do science.

I read her the passage in the fourth book that recollects a year in an inch of text:

So the year turned on its heel, through a winter of racing winds, frosts keener than grief, hardly preparing us for that last magnificent summer which followed the spring so swiftly. It came curving in, this summer, as if from some long-forgotten latitude first dreamed of in Eden, miraculously rediscovered among the slumbering thoughts of mankind.(i1)

What a brilliant metaphor for Gordana to live with, that our daily work in the lab and in our lives is somehow shadowed by the magnificence and the despair of time, the temporality not giving order to events (Newton released us from that false hope) but providing a canvas or screen on which all these events can, quantum-like, collide and make themselves known.

After a pause, she adds, “The world is so beautifully connected, everything is connected to everything. You just need to find a way to say it.”

Gordana revels in the sociality of cells and tissues. She knows, from her NASA experiments on the Mir spaceship, how cartilage cells grown in 10-4 – 10-6 g gravity don’t settle to the bottom and make contact with one another. Their unattached growth hinders their biological function. They need to make contact with others, to share boundaries, to socialize. They need, as Gordana put it, “the right home.” This led her to appreciate cells’ need for community, You do need some critical number because they do talk to each other. You have a few cells, they are isolated and lost in space. If you have lots of cells, they talk to each other; they form some kind of community.

Here, then, is where her thirst for teams comes from, her commitment to keep the doors of her lab open, to invite in all of Columbia to think with her, to bring her team problems from the clinic. She says emphatically, “It is not bench to bedside. It is bedside to bench to bedside.”

Finally, I asked Gordana where her ideas come from.

It works in many different ways. Sometimes you are in the supermarket and something clicks. Because you never stop working, you know this yourself. It’s a lifestyle. You just always think about things and even if you don’t think about them, they sit in the back of your mind. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I’m like, 'Oh my God, I need to write this down before . . .'  You know the state between dream and awake state, this is still very fragile. And if you just jump out of the bed, you may lose it. 'Look, this is what you really need to remember.' To remember until I get pen and paper and write it down. So sometimes it just happens.'

We read together a poem by Wallace Stevens called “Man Carrying Thing.” The poem describes the situation of a man who gets an idea that he initially cannot comprehend:

A brune figure in winter evening resists
Identity. The thing he carries resists

The most necessitous sense.

The man endures uncertainty like a snow storm through the night:

Out of a storm of secondary things,
A horror of thoughts that suddenly are real.

We must endure our thoughts all night, until
The bright obvious stands motionless in cold. (i2)

 

--This is beautiful (Gordana says.)

--Is that great? (Rita answers)

--This is beautiful.

--The bright obvious.

--Yes.

--In the cold.

--This is beautiful.

--But you have to tolerate the snow.

--Yes. It’s really beautiful. Wow.

References

(i1) Durrell, Lawrence. Clea, NY: E.P. Dutton, 1961:222.

(i2) Stevens, Wallace. "Man Carrying Thing." The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. The Corrected Edition. NY: Vintage, 2015:369.