May 29, 2019 2:00 PM


Bryan Welm

Seventy pounds of metal, welded into an accurate depiction of a nucleosome, has been on display for the past few weeks in the lobby of the Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) Primary Children’s and Families’ Cancer Research Center. The sculpture, crafted by Bryan Welm, PhD, a researcher at HCI and associate professor of surgery at the University of Utah (U of U), received the New England Biolabs Passion in Science award at a ceremony in May.

His passion for welding began a few years ago after taking a class with his daughter. Initially he thought he’d create some artwork for his home. But then he started making biomolecular structures, such as DNA and proteins.

“I really do believe that art and science are married,” says Welm. “People walk in through this door, and this is hopefully the first thing they see. [They’re] not going to know exactly what it is, but they may come over here and look at it more carefully, and then they’ll start asking questions.”

Last year Welm was contacted by Karolin Luger, PhD, who saw some of his sculptures while visiting HCI. She was presenting a seminar about her research studying proteins and a discovery she made nearly two decades ago, the nucleosome structure. She asked Welm if he could build it. The idea began to take shape in Welm’s imagination.

“I looked up the structure and thought it was going to be too much, that it was too complex. And then I eventually decided to take it on and see how far I got.” Welm enlisted the help of his colleague Brad Cairns, PhD, HCI’s senior director of basic science and professor and chair of oncological sciences at the U of U. Through trial and error, reconstruction, and hard work, they made the structure as accurate as possible. It took them 10 months to create the one-to-50-million-scale creation.

brad cairns and bryan welm stand by a scultpure

Every cell in our body has two meters of DNA. Nucleosomes store those DNA strands tight packages—so tight that thousands of meters can fit in the size of a period. Nucleosomes also control how genes turn on and off, telling the cell when to make more cells. When abnormalities occur in nucleosomes, genes that control cell growth can be activated inappropriately, leading to the development of cancer.

Cairns is excited about using the sculpture to train graduate students. Being able to touch something that can only be seen through a high-powered electron microscope gives students and researchers new perspectives. “You interact with it in a deeper and more intimate way when you can touch it, feel it, and look at it, and you think about the sorts of things that you are doing,” said Cairns.

The nucleosome sculpture was delivered to Luger in recognition of her accomplishments and discovery. Welm and Cairns will create two more sculptures. One will be given to New England Biolabs for sponsoring the project and the other will remain at HCI for educational purposes.

bryan welm with welding equipment

cancer research