What can we learn about how human body cells work by studying cities, and how might we rethink the future of cities by studying cells?
In 2016, the WbML began a major collaboration with the USC Bridge Institute at the Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience in USC’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, with additional support from Havas XVIII, to create a “virtual cell” as a city. The goal is to use story and world building to present scientific detail in ways that are engaging and approachable for both laymen and experts. By creating a virtual Cell as a City, based on the structure and function of a pancreatic beta cell, we will allow people to explore a rich biochemical world while engaging concepts, pathways, and implications, all backed by scientific rigor. Using our immersive storytelling experience, scientists will more clearly understand the interconnections between cellular systems by virtually “entering” the cell and seeing the systems surrounding them. Our goal is to simulate and highlight the changes in those systems due to drugs and other treatments.
The pancreatic beta cell was chosen as our focus because its function is to create insulin, the molecule at the heart of diabetes. Diabetes is one of the largest growing threats to human health in the developed world, but in many cases, is avoidable or treatable through behavioral change. To affect change engagement, motivation, and understanding need to be enabled for individuals, families, and society. The World in a Single Cell project brings together a broadly interdisciplinary team of scientists, storytellers, artists, programmers, and conceptual thinkers, all with a proven track record of creating the next wave of content and experiences. This project has healthcare, educational, and STEM aspects and outcomes, as well as providing an opportunity to further empower women moving into (and staying in) the scientific education and training pipelines. This project can also flip 180 degrees to look at ways that nature’s pathways and processes might inform and be applied to future city design. We also envision that our “Cell City” can serve as an extensible framework/platform where other scientists can add their results, expand details, and connect related work.
Our long-term goal is to create a rich and diverse world that scales from atomic to cell to organ to human. Immersive media like virtual reality provide a unique portal into systems both large and small, and when combined with narrative elements based on scientific rigor, promises to enable a new generation of education, research, and collaboration. We seek to take the passion inherent in scientists and present that in a way that translates across a broad spectrum of society, while providing opportunities for deep engagement as well. We know that human experiences in immersive environments are challenging to design and execute, but given our experience and the trans-disciplinary approach, we are excited to create new ways of understanding through world building and help advance society through students, scientists and citizens engaging with the Cell as a City.
Bridge Institute Team
Kyle McClary – Lead Student Researcher
Nilkanth Patel – Student Researcher
Jitin Singla – Student Researcher
Raymond Stevens – Principal Investigator
Ariel Wein – Student Researcher
Kate White, PhD – Student Researcher