As a neuroscientist, I often hear people repeat the age-old notion that art and science occupy distinct hemispheres in the brain: art on the right, science on the left. As we’ve learned more about the nervous system, however, we’ve discovered that the story is not so clear-cut. Similarly, in our society, where science and art seem to attract opposite personalities, the overlap between the two disciplines is broader than you might think. From paintings to digital micrographs, history has shown us the success and enlightenment that can be found at the intersection of science and art.

The Humble Beginning of Science Art

Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man shows the ideal human proportions as described in data recorded by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius. Credit: Wikimedia Foundation

Throughout history, plenty of artists have advanced their craft by exploring scientific ideas, and many scientists have used art as a method for expressing the beauty of the natural world.

Science art as we know it began 500 years ago in the paintings, sketches, and sculptures of the masters. Michelangelo’s and Leonardo Da Vinci’s artistic talents, for instance, benefited from their fascination with the science of the human body. If you look closely, you can see how Michelangelo’s meticulous study of human anatomy influenced his design of David (below) and his paintings in the Sistine Chapel. One of Da Vinci’s most famous sketches, The Vitruvian Man (above and left), shows his careful observation of the human body’s structure and movement.

Left: The veins and wrinkles in Michelangelo’s David show his fascination with human anatomy. Credit: Marie VICAT. Right: Credit Rabe!

Some of the most important advancements in my field of neuroscience originated as artistic sketches. Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience, spent years carefully examining the microanatomy of the brain under a light microscope. His artwork detailing neuron morphology, synapses, and circuits is considered to have formed the basis of our modern understanding of the brain.

One of Santiago Ramon y Cajal’s sketches of Purkinje cells.

Today, the relationship between science and art continues to flourish as scholars and artists such as Suzanne Anker and Greg Dunn carry the legacy of the early science artists. Dunn’s work echoes Ramón y Cajal’s in that he finds beauty in illustrating the complex organization of brain connectomics. Anker’s work takes the meaning of science art one step further by literally using lab supplies such as petri dishes in her sculptures.

Science Art in the Digital Age 

Every day, I see more examples of art in the science of my colleagues. Today’s scientists are taking art to levels that Michelangelo could never have imagined, using high-powered microscopes, supercomputers, video, and other modern tools to infuse their science with art. Furthermore, many scientists have taken their work online, building a community of science artists under the hashtag #SciArt on social media.

I have been influenced by Ramón y Cajal, and like his art, mine features neurons. But instead of using ink and paper like he did, I use fluorescent dyes, lasers, and a digital camera. While I regularly take micrographs of my neurons for reference purposes, and perhaps to include in a research paper, I derive fascination and satisfaction from translating these images into eye-catching art for the public to enjoy. Ramón y Cajal’s intention with his art was to share his findings with his fellow scholars, but like many of my contemporaries with their art, I have bigger goals in mind with mine. I aim to attract both scientific and non-scientific audiences, spark their curiosity, and begin a dialogue about neuroscience. If my photographs elicit questions such as, “what is that?” and “how did you take that picture?” I feel that I have done my job. My thought is, if anyone can look across a room and recognize the Mona Lisa, why can’t it be so that they’d also recognize a neuron from afar?

Two of my photographs of Purkinje cells, a neuron type found in the cerebellum that mediates motor learning and coordination.

I am proud that I have taken a biological specimen that most people, scientists or not, never get a chance to see and have given a new audience an opportunity to learn some neuroscience in a safe, non-judgemental environment. I like to start conversations about the brain using science art because, while the brain can be intimidating, science art is accessible to both creative and analytical minds.

The Next Generation of Science Artists

Last fall, I was honored to attend the New England Biolabs Passion in Science Awards, which acknowledge individuals who have taken science outside the laboratory and used it in a novel way to benefit humanity. Attending the award ceremony gave me an opportunity to connect with other scientists like me who are steering their work in new directions by exploring their creative sides. I met the next generation of science artists there – other winners created zines to explain difficult scientific concepts, took beautiful photographs of bacterial structures, and produced animations to describe seminal ecology research. At the award ceremony, I spoke about how I took inspiration from popular artists such as Andy Warhol and tested the limits of my microscope to create art out of my research:

While science art began quietly in laboratories and studios, today’s scientists are exploring art in new, exciting ways and sharing it with the world. The two disciplines are becoming inextricably intertwined, and science art is becoming a driving force behind both scientific and artistic achievement. Science art is no longer reserved for the masters and polymaths; rather, it is an outlet any scholar can use to redefine his or her work, introduce it to new audiences, and watch its value grow beyond what one could expect. I look forward to the day where scientists and artists start embracing the ways they can combine their skills to strengthen their respective fields.

Dana Simmons is a Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at the University of Chicago where she studies the role of synaptic plasticity in autism. As much as Dana loves performing research, she equally enjoys sharing her science art with others. You can view Dana’s art portfolio and learn more about her methods at www.dana-simmons.com.