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With comic book styling, biology grad Kella Vangsness paints stem cells as superheroes

‘Stem Cells: The Heroes of Disease’ depicts stem cells waging a war against the villainy of disease

Kella Vangsness’ vivid imagination takes form in her series of six paintings titled “Stem Cells: The Heroes of Disease.”

Funded by a grant from USC’s Bridge Art and Science Alliance, the large-format paintings, produced with acrylic and a graffiti marker, draw inspiration from original Wonder Woman comics, the pop art of Roy Lichtenstein, and scientific microscopy and textbook illustrations.

“As an artist and scientist, I cannot help but imagine stem cells as ‘superheroes’ fighting against ‘villains’ of disease,” said Vangsness, who graduated from USC on May 11 with a master’s degree in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine.

Vangsness donated the paintings to the Eli and Edythe Broad CIRM Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at USC, where they currently appear on  the second floor.

One of the paintings, “The Astrocyte,” also appeared in a neuroscience-themed art show in the Hoyt Gallery on the USC Health Sciences Campus this spring, and the full series will go on temporary loan to the new art gallery at the USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience on the USC University Park Campus this summer.

“Even in the face of challenges,” Vangsness said, “stem cells hold the promise of treating multiple diseases, be it via their regenerative capabilities or with the insight they provide into mechanistic aspects of biological systems and molecular pathways.”


Each painting began as a pen-and-ink drawing that was only 3 inches across. Vangsness then used a projector to enlarge this tiny design and trace its outlines in krink onto a canvas 3 feet across. Finally, she brought each painting to colorful life using acrylics and pop art-inspired brushwork.

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With comic book styling, biology grad Kella Vangsness paints stem cells as superheroes

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