a new project has me learning about nonalcoholic fatty liver disease

Last December, I attend a meet and greet hosted by the Phoenix Bioscience Core, Arts Committee. The gathering is at Walter Productions. 10 Phoenix artists are there to meet 10 researches from the University College of Medicine – Phoenix, Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University’s College of Health and Human Services, TGen and Electra Tect.
 We are, Round #2 of the Artists + Researchers Project (ARx).


Photo by PBC

This is the evening I meet Dr. Johanna DiStefano, whom after brief introductions asks, What do you think about the liver?  I hand her an image of my work and explain my interest in anatomy and physiology.  I’ve been curious about the liver for a good while, I tell her.  She explains that in her work, she is looking at the accumulation of fat in the liver. Her research is in Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).  I tell her about a drawing (full-scale human study) I completed, on the topic of obesity.

Eventually, we’re partnered!

Since then, I have come to know Johanna and her work at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen). She is a Professor and Head of the Diabetes and Fibrotic Disease Unit. She investigates epigenetic mechanisms underlying the development and progression of NAFLD.

IMG_0032At some point in our interaction, I ask if I can see a healthy and an unhealthy liver. I am also curious about healthy and unhealthy liver cells. Johanna responds, …fat laden hepatocytes vs normal hepatocytes or activated vs quiescent HSC? (Oh oh, new language!) Her lab works with biopsied tissues. Never whole organs, she says.

I had already toured TGen. It’s time to visit Johanna’s lab.



IMG_0023 2


There are growing cells – to small for the eye to see – in this container.


There they are – growing away! (trust me – they’re beautiful to look at)

Johanna and I continue to get to know each other and I continue to learn more about NAFLD.

J:   Latinos are at higher risk of developing NAFLD.

M:  And what can you tell me about Native Americans?

J:   I suspect that Native Americans are, too. Unfortunately, this population is understudied in the NAFLD field, so the true prevalence of the disease remains unknown. Interestingly, individuals of African ancestry have the lowest risk of NAFLD despite having the highest risks of many predisposing factors such as obesity and Type 2 Diabetes.

M: Johanna, Did I tell you I have also looked at the microbiome and its relationship to obesity.

J:  You didn’t mention your work/interest with the microbiome. It’s interesting because this plays a role in NAFLD, too. Little by little, we are inching our way to a better understanding of how our bodies metabolize food by taking into consideration nutrient composition and our gut microbiome. I imagine that this is different for everyone. You and I could eat the same exact foods and have completely different responses to it. Plus, the presence of NAFLD alters the way the body responds to food, which exacerbates liver dysfunction. For example, people with NAFLD absorb fructose more efficiently making them more sensitive to the detrimental effects of sugar.

In this same conversation I learn about two types of liver cells. Hepatocytes and hepatic stellate cells are key players in the pathogenesis of NAFLD. According to Johanna, they have distinctly different morphologies based upon their status.




Stellate Cell

Familiar with the Kupffer cell, also of the liver – I draw one. ↓ Gut bacteria, endotoxins and debris transported to liver from GI Tract come into contact with these cells, first.


Kuppfer cell – First Immune cell in the liver

I wonder out loud, Which organs, in general, does NAFLD affect? The liver is the main filter, I’m guessing that the disease can cause problems to most any organ. Can nonalcoholic fatty liver disease affect the body – head to toe? Johanna nods, yes. I follow up with, Can you give me an example? Circulation, she notes. I decide to work a full human (head-to-toe) and very soon after, I know who I will be using as subject of this study.

Returning to the studio, I cut and prepare an 84.5 x 52.5″ sheet of Arches paper. #NAFLDisComplicated


It has been a while since I worked a life-size figure study. It feels good to be back in the studio.

Martinez_DrawingLiver, I’ve been wanting to learn more about you!

Martinez_Segmented Liver

More about Dr. Johanna DiStefano’s work:
PBS, Horizon
→  https://azpbs.org/horizonte/2022/10/fatty-liver-disease-disproportionally-affecting-latino-youth-scientists-unite-to-find-the-cause/

TGen Talks NAFLD


Johanna, It’s cool getting to know you and the work your lab does. Thank you for the teaching!


Photo by PBC

Ps: Bentley Gallery is involved too! More on this later.


unintended consequences

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Curator, Laura Hales asked, and we said yes!

Carolyn, Mary and I are collaborating. We are creating a site specific, temporary wall painting exploring human activity on Arizona’s people, wildlife, and plants in the past and the present. You’re invited to view the installation and consider how we can restore and balance a healthy future for Arizona life.

WHO: Scottsdale Arts Learning 7 Innovation invites you to the opening reception for
WHERE: Center Space
Located in Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts
7380 E 2nd Street
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
WHEN: Artist reception: Feb. 17, 202, 6-8
Exhibition runs Feb 17 thru May 28, 2023
Free to attend → more info 

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