Seeing Beauty in Biology

Meg- Microscope Pic

Credit: Lemonade at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I started my career in a laboratory, spending countless happy hours doing cell culture work and bent over a microscope. I sometimes miss those quiet hours and the joy of doing delicate, precise work with my hands. I also miss the beautiful images under the microscope, especially of neurons. So it’s no wonder that the winning entry of the 2013 Visual Challenge knocked my socks off. Each year Science magazine and the National Science Foundation conduct an International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge. The 2013 winners in each category were announced last month, and can be found here (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/343/6171/600.full).

This year’s winners in the Illustration category were Greg Dunn and Brian Edwards, Greg Dunn Design, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Marty Saggese, Society for Neuroscience, Washington, D.C.; Tracy Bale, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; Rick Huganir, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland

The winning entry in the Illustration category looks like Asian art—beautiful cortical neurons displayed like bare trees in winter, against a pastel background in muted tones. The Science magazine piece describes it thus:

Cortex in Metallic Pastels represents a stylized section of the cerebral cortex, in which axons, dendrites, and other features create a scene reminiscent of a copse of silver birch at twilight. An accurate depiction of a slice of cerebral cortex would be a confusing mess, Dunn says, so he thins out the forest of cells, revealing the delicate branching structure of each neuron.

“Dunn blows pigments across the canvas to create the neurons and highlights some of them in gold leaf and palladium… He hopes that lay viewers will see how the branching structures of neurons mirror so many other natural structures, from river deltas to the roots of a tree.”

This idea about the repetition of such visual themes throughout nature is bound to resonate with any biologist who has spent time at a microscope. I have been enjoying watching the remake of the wonderful television series Cosmos, and I must say that the images they show of space remind me strongly of many of the images I saw years ago at the microscope.

Not surprisingly, Greg Dunn earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and loves Asian art.  His works can be seen and purchased here (http://www.gregadunn.com/).

(And no, I have no financial interest in recommending Dr. Dunn’s art work—though I may buy a print for my office!)

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