2021 Protein Portraits Syllabus

Protein Portraits 2021: Proteins at turning points of history

Course syllabus

What is involved in taking this course?

Protein Portraits BB 407H is an Honors College Colloquium, 2 credit hours.  We get to make the course anew each year.  Linked at the bottom are some past course syllabi.  None of these was finalized on the first day of class.  In those years we reached a consensus on the syllabi by class discussions.  True to form, this year have fashioned this year’s colloquium to fit our own interests.  Our goal is to artistically memorialize some of the great proteins of history.  Has this ever been done?  Will we succeed?  How can we systematize our activities?

What we expect to learn:

We will take up the general topic of protein history through three main activities.

  • Answers from the world of science. Our first activity will be to approach the above question from a scientific standpoint. We will tour the chemistry and structure of proteins, guiding ourselves through the meanings and definitions of science by referring to the wealth of graphical illustrations that scientists commonly use to depict protein molecules.  We will frequently turn to the Protein Data Bank and the associated Molecule of the Month for examples of such illustrations.  We will also be guided by two wonderfully illustrated science books,  The Machinery of Life by David Goodsell and Introduction to Protein Structure by Branden and Tooze.
  • Answers from the world of art. The second activity will be to approach the above question using our artistic instincts.  We will bring into discussion any and all forms of the arts as potentially suitable means to portray protein molecules.  We will critique existing examples from the small but growing genre of protein-inspired artwork.  We will share ideas and float trial balloons to carry ourselves to new levels of scientific-artistic inspiration.
  • Our own creations.  In the third activity each student will choose a protein molecule as a subject for artistic portrayal.  The artworks will convey meaning by giving a personal take on proteins that were at the scene when historical events transpired.. History, conceived as our legacy that shapes us today, is undoubtedly filled with proteins ranging between those having prominent central roles to those that few have ever assigned importance to in defining events.  We, as students of proteins of all kinds, now take the role of protein champions.  Our artwork might highlight certain structural or functional features about proteins.  We might focus on protein evolution or how proteins fit in with society.  There are many facets to artistically consider in portraying a protein.  What is unique and different about this year is that our artwork will pinpoint an event in history when a protein played a role.


Artworks of all kinds are replete with history, and history infuses all artists for we are each projecting from the collective past.  History is the ground for symbolic art that directly depicts events.  Turnbull’s famous depiction of the signing of the American Declaration of Independence draws the eye toward the quill pen, the tip of which is an assembly of keratin, the protein responsible for the sharp and resilient point that delivers the iron gall ink to the parchment document.  Keratin inspires us as a central but largely unsung molecular instrument of history.

Quill keratin marks a turning point in history

History also provides the resonant context for many artworks, conjuring emotions and reactions that circulate in an event’s vicinity.  La Guernica and the mad eye of Picasso’s tortured bull bear witness to the onslaught of war.  The painting is also subliminally highlighted everywhere by Spanish sangre — streaks of blood — on Picasso’s neutrally colored canvas, as a haunting message of red hemoglobin wrenched from its once peaceful context, now spattered and wasted. Hemoglobin inspires us as an unlying and unforgettable molecular witness to violent conflict.

Black and white and red all over

Black and white and red all over: Hemoglobin and the art of inhuman displacement and despair.

What is expected of the student:

  • Classroom participation is number one. The best kind of participation stimulates discussion across the whole classroom.  If you are not talking, you are not participating.  But if you are the only one talking, you are not promoting discussion and need to work on your listening skills! At minimum you should supply a comment or question each day of the class.  Jump in!
  • We will set various deadlines for our art projects, and you are expected to describe your progress.  Willingness to share personal progress at all stages will lend a team atmosphere to the course.  That is what we are after.
  • In our early discussions in the first part of the term, we have come up with a number of personal choices of important moments in history.  These have included events of great renown as well as personal events few others know anything about.  We have also been thinking and imagining how proteins were there in those moments of history, participating as critical but unsung participants in the events.  Our goal is to bring the proteins to prominence.  Great events have occurred, but which proteins helped to make such history?
  • Preliminary design review. You will describe and offering a preliminary design review of your personal project by week five or six.  This will include your historical theme and your choice of protein (your top choice; this is preliminary, after all).  A good idea of the artistic media you have in mind should also be conveyed.
  • A final design review, present by week seven or eight or nine, will reflect the progress you have made in the assembly of your work.  The design should be nearly complete at this point, subject to the practicalities of getting the projects complete by the end of the term for a public showing.
  • A caption for your artwork. A brief, neatly printed title and description of your artwork is expected to accompany the work in our public display.  We will choose a style of captioning (a stylistic theme) that applies to all of our displayed works so that our show will have professional panache.  Polish counts!
  • Attendance.  100% classroom attendance is expected (aside from excused absences). Please realize that your absences detrimentally affect the whole class, not simply you alone.  The easiest way to lower your letter grade is to miss class!

When/where we meet

We are completely online this term (Spring 2021).  We will meet by zoom on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11 to 11:50.  Attendance is required and duly noted.


If a student comes to class, participates in our discussions, and meets each course deadline including the final deadline of producing a protein portrait artwork, that effort will be a sufficiently strong performance to merit the receipt of an A letter grade in this 2-credit colloquium course.

Learning resources

  • We will make heavy use of the Protein Data Bank and its affiliated Molecule of the Month.
  • The optional textbook (for your purchase) is The Machinery of Life by David Goodsell (2nd edition, 2009).
  • Another optional book is Introduction to Protein Structure by Branden and Tooze (Second edition; 1999; ISBN 0815323050; about $70.)  If you find a used copy, grab it!  This is a great book.
  • I am also happy to lend you a biochemistry textbook if that will help.
  • During the course of the term we will keep a running account of our progress by posting notes and pictures on our course blog at http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/psquared/

Cost of materials

Art materials will probably cost you around $10- $20 (glue, tape, wire, other cheap materials).  Let’s hold down the cost.  Try to use the stuff you find lying around in the back of your closet.  Save money.

Past syllabi

Note how different the course can be from year-to-year.

Syllabus from 2018

Syllabus from 2017

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