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New DNA statue to be unveiled at NIH on National DNA Day

Artist seeks to inspire others to learn about genomics through sculpture.

On April 25, National DNA Day, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will welcome a new statue, “The Ladder,” celebrating DNA and children.

National DNA Day is a unique day when students, teachers and the public can learn more about genetics and genomics. The day commemorates the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 and the discovery of DNA's double-helical structure in 1953.

The statue and unveiling ceremony are being hosted through a collaboration involving the NIH Clinical Center, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI).

“The Ladder” was created by Mary Ellen Scherl, who took inspiration from biblical imagery and modern science, drawing parallels between a ladder leading to heaven in the Old Testament book of Genesis and the structure of DNA. Here, the bend in the path of the ladder is translated into the familiar double-helical shape.

 “I want people to walk away with a sense of joy and celebration of humanity and science, of their inclusiveness,” Scherl says.

The four messengers “ascending and descending” the sculpture are in the form of children, representing the four nucleic acids that encode our genetic information, and the diversity of humanity, according to Scherl.

“The Ladder” tackles a deeply personal subject for Scherl. Adopted at infancy, Scherl’s reconnection with her birth family was made possible by modern genetics.

Using a commercial genetic test, she embarked on a years-long search for her relatives. As the genetic testing company’s database expanded, she was connected to more and more family members—a third cousin interested in genealogy, who helped her find other family members, and eventually her half-brother, Dr. John Constantino, an NIH grantee, who will be offering remarks at the ceremony.

This art piece is one of many that Scherl has created to engage with social issues.

She was inspired to work on projects with public impact after seeing the profound effect that her project “Mamorial,” a breast cancer initiative that invites breast cancer survivors to make a mold of their affected chests, had on the survivors she worked with. Scherl has since created works that engage with diverse topics, including body image, genetics and women in military service.

She is a graduate of Washington University and has served on the boards of the International Sculpture Center and the Bakehouse Art Complex. Her work is exhibited at Vanderbilt University, the Contemporary Museum of Sculpture in Datong, China, the New York University Langone Medical Centers, and the Miami Military Museum.

The unveiling ceremony will feature remarks from Dr. Monica Bertagnolli, NIH Director, Dr. James Gilman, CEO of the NIH Clinical Center, Frank Piatkowski, of the Office of Research Facilities, Dr. Diana Bianchi, NICHD Director, the artist, Mary Ellen Scherl, Dr. John Constantino, from the Emory University School of Medicine, and Dr. Eric Green, NHGRI Director.

The unveiling ceremony will take place at 10 a.m. ET at the NIH Clinical Center, outside the North Entrance.

Last updated: April 24, 2024