Science gets under my skin

In my first year of graduate school, Professor Sam Behar was giving us a lecture about phagocytes, a group of cells that includes macrophages, neutrophils, and a number of other immune cells that tend to gobble things up. These cells are all over the place, and some can stay in the same place for many years. “How long?” he asked, and then clicked to a slide that had a picture of my back.


To be fair, he didn’t know it was my back – but all of my classmates did, and it was kind of awkward. The point he was trying to make is that phagocytes take up tattoo ink, but aren’t able to break it down. So it sticks around as long as the cells do. And when those cells die, they are generally eaten by a neighboring phagocyte, so the ink doesn’t go very far.

My dad objected to my first tattoo because he’s from a generation where “only low-lifes and sailors get tattoos,” but nowadays, that list needs to at least include scientists too. For a number of years, Carl Zimmer has been curating a collection of science tattoos, and now he’s written a book, Science Ink, that will highlight some of his favorites, tell their stories and illuminate the science behind them.
It seems like an awesome project, and I’m honored that my back made the cut.


  1. #1 Tanya
    June 15, 2011

    Your tattoo is awesome and it makes me so glad to know that I’m not the only one who has a Tat of DNA on their back!

  2. #2 Christie
    June 16, 2011

    I fully intend on getting a tattoo of my lionfishes (I have three other tattoos). Something tribal-esque, I think… but I want to include the DNA/toxins/etc somehow. I’ve been thinking about it for two years!

    PS your tattoo is awesome.

  3. #3 Kevin
    June 16, 2011

    @ Tanya – Pictures?

    @ Christie – Sounds doable to me, but you said there’s no crystal structure right? Sounds like someone needs to make friends with a biochemist…

  4. #4 Dark Knight Rises
    June 16, 2011

    Wow that seems like a pretty awesome book, I’m definitely going to take a look at in when given the chance to.

  5. #5 hazey
    June 16, 2011

    ammmmmmmmazing tat!

  6. #6 Kevin
    June 16, 2011

    Thanks hazey!

  7. #7 dan meek
    June 16, 2011

    Wait, finish the story! What point does your back illustrate about phagocytes? Or was it just a random illustration of a tattoo?

  8. #8 Kevin
    June 16, 2011

    The point was that phagocytes are the cells that take up and store the tattoo ink. Sam just googled “science tattoo” and mine was near the top.

  9. #9 Mike Olson
    January 2, 2012

    I’d read this in the summer, but never saw the book. I was at the North Park Mall in Davenport Iowa, this past Friday, looking through the science section at Barnes and Noble, when I overheard a couple discussing tattoos that involved science. The young woman had apparently found inspiration in the book and was going to get another tat. At any rate, I thought it was the book, and lo and behold, there was your ink. Frankly, as a former sailor and low life(helping to maintain your fathers preconceptions), I got a couple: A dragon on my left arm and a snowy owl on my right. At the time, I was a lab tech and no one was getting “sciency” in their ink work. But, the dragon was inspired by a Stephen King cover, and the owl was something I associated with several notions. At any rate, some notion: inking myself with signs symbolic of intelligence, wisdom, extreme conditions and adaptability. To be frank, people of my father’s generation seemed a bit harsher in their judgments…I honestly think my mom took it as a sign I was entirely lost….so I’ve spent a lot of years covering and not talking to excessively about my tats. Suffice to say, they were by design intended to be able to be concealed beneath a lab coat or a dress shirt, so as not to lose my credibility.

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