Using performance to embody science and teach about Tuberculosis


  • Heran Darwin (Microbiologist)
  • Kate Lee (Performance Artist)


In a time when medical schools obsess over making millions of dollars to develop a patent to make a drug, Heran Darwin, biologist and Director of the Darwin Lab at NYU, wants to understand how tuberculosis works.

At 2.5 million deaths a year, tuberculosis kills more people than any other infectious disease on earth. That's almost the size of Chicago (2.7 million). About a third of the world population is infected -- that's at least 2 billion people!

In translational medicine, "you're working to a find a cure for a disease, you're trying to stop it, you're not trying to understand it," says Darwin. But "when you understand how something works you have a better chance at fighting disease and eradicating it from the rest of the earth. I call myself a fundamental scientist because I'm trying to understand the processes. I’m on the ‘how’ side of science. I'm not a pharmaceutical company." Besides, according Darwin, a drug for tuberculosis will never make any money because the majority of people infected with tuberculosis wouldn’t be able to pay for treatment so it isn’t a high priority for many pharmaceutical companies.

The Darwin Lab studies the mechanics and pathways of tuberculosis so that scientists can one day target them with new drugs to cure the disease. That means studying the bacteria that causes tuberculosis (mycobacterium tuberculosis), what it needs to live, and why and how a collection of natural enzymes, acting as a complex called the proteasome, helps it grow in humans.  

Darwin believes that 10 years from now all these building blocks of knowledge are going to be critical to developing a cure. That’s why, with all the institutional prioritizing of profits, Darwin wants to remind the public how critical doing basic science research is for making discoveries that lead to better human health. But it’s hard to get people to care about something they can’t relate to.

“I'd just love for people to understand science better,” but it’s hard to explain science to nonscientists who don’t understand fundamental processes. When the opportunity arose to work with artist Kate Lee  to convey basic science to the public, Darwin jumped on board.

"Sometimes it’s hard to explain science and sometimes it’s hard to explain art" but "maybe there's a way of using art to explain science better."There are countless ways to go about it but if you’re a performance artist, how do you do that? It also brings up questions in terms of what is important to convey to the public, to resonate.  Is it important that the general public understands the minutia of scientific details or is it more important that they understand the big swaths - why a scientists is asking a particular questions or working on a problem in a particular way and how evidence based scientific information is generated and why that process is important and meaningful, rather than very specific details about one particular protein that a lab may work on for example.  

“It’s been a process of translation and understanding.”

Kate Lee, a cultural producer and educator that uses performance art as a tool for social engagement and cultural development, believes that science can be embodied in a performative way and that performance can be used in science education. "I’ve never just been in the arts," Lee says, "I’ve always had a social practice; it’s definitely about getting out of silos."

Lee's vision was to convey Darwins’ work by telling two stories. The first is a human story about the devastation of tuberculosis in developing countries and the second on the science. The ground level reality of the disease is one of drug resistant strains; doctors prescribing outdated drugs because they don't have access to newer treatments, and pharmaceutical companies that have largely ignored the problem.

But for the science, Lee needed Darwin’s help. "I listened to Heran talk about her work and realized I not only wanted to understand the science, but wanted the challenge of how to tell the science story. Usually with performance you go with what resonates, but this is different because it’s a whole new area of knowledge for me, so it took time to sift through the information, read one of Heran's research papers and listen to our recordings just to become familiar with the terminology—I actually really enjoyed that process. It’s been a process of translation and understanding.“

Heran gave Lee lots feedback on the script and did her best to frame the science, including help on that enabling enzyme that helps tuberculosis grow in humans.

“Think of the proteasome as a manager of a cell. It somehow manages all these different proteins. Proteins are the workers - each performs a specialized job important to cell function and therefore all activities we as humans perform and need to live. The proteosome decides when some proteins are going to be degraded and destroyed and it also has to make decisions NOT to destroy certain proteins. This decisions making process is an active regulation of protein activity.  How does this nano-machine make these sorts of fate based decisions? We’re only at the tip of the iceberg. Existentially the question is: how do proteins know how to do things…how do we know how to do things?”

Kate performed "TB: Not a disease of the past" to a packed room at Littlefield in Brooklyn with her performance team at the Art of Science gallery night in December 2016.


Heran Darwin

Heran is a Microbiologist investigating Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb) and microbial pathogenesis. Tuberculosis is one of the leading causes of death in the world, killing about 2 million people a year. Nearly one-third of the world is infected with Mtb, which is a rod shaped bacterium that persists in the lungs of humans. New drugs to treat tuberculosis are urgently needed. Her lab is working to identify activities in Mtb that can be targeted, focusing on understanding the link between Mtb pathogenesis and virulence that are dependent on protein degradation via the proteasome as well as mechanisms of mycobacterial resistance to host. The task of studying Mtb and finding new drugs and drug targets is hindered by the fact that Mtb is dangerous due to its highly infectious nature and is slow growing, requiring 2-3 weeks to grow colonies on solid media. Taken together, Mtb is one of the most significant and challenging organisms to study.

Kate Lee

Kate is an applied theater practitioner and interdisciplinary performance creator, I work in various forms including text based plays, dance, theater, music, and devised performance. I work with diverse communities using theater as a tool for social engagement, education and cultural development. I began performing in Sydney in 2002 and in 2009 I formed ExperimentONE with my directorial debut, Flicking the Flint, which premiered at Brisbane Festival’s UNDER THE RADAR and continued a season at Adelaide Fringe Festival & Metro Arts, Brisbane.