HomeNeuroscienceUC Berkeley alum Greg Dunn celebrates the mind by artwork

UC Berkeley alum Greg Dunn celebrates the mind by artwork

“It’s a chance for individuals to face proper in entrance of a bodily object and take up the complexity of the mind and have that sink in emotionally. I feel that’s how individuals study essentially the most successfully — when their feelings are touched.”

Greg Dunn, PhD (UCB alum, class of 2002)

Greg Dunn

Greg Dunn is an artist with a PhD in Neuroscience, whose work highlights the sweetness and complexity of the nervous system. From delicate work of neurons on scrolls to intricate depictions of the exercise of lots of of 1000’s of neurons, Dunn goals to encourage a way of awe and marvel in regards to the mind by his artwork. His items have been exhibited internationally to broad acclaim, and dangle in science museums, universities, workplaces, and private collections.

As an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, Dunn pursued each science and artwork as a Molecular and Cell Biology (MCB) main with a minor in ethnomusicology. A musician since childhood, Dunn switched his inventive focus to visible artwork whereas incomes his PhD in Neuroscience on the College of Pennsylvania, impressed by photographs of neurons and mind slices and the similarities he noticed to shapes in Asian artwork. His inventive profession took off when the Society for Neuroscience commissioned him to create a big gold leaf portray for his or her headquarters whereas he was nonetheless a graduate scholar.

Now Dunn works as an artist full-time, however nonetheless collaborates with neuroscientists and follows neuroscience analysis to encourage and inform his work. He says his scientific coaching contributed to his artwork in some ways, together with his means to create new strategies akin to reflective microetching, which he developed together with his collaborator, physicist Brian Edwards. They used this method to generate highly-detailed animations of neural exercise of their Nationwide Science Basis funded piece, Self Mirrored, which is completely displayed within the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Dunn believes that it’s the most complicated inventive visualization of the mind up to now.

A highly-detailed microetching representing a section through the cerebellum. It shows many neuronal fibers and branches in pastel rainbow colors, as well as intricate folds.

Element from “Self Mirrored” by Greg Dunn and Brian Edwards, displaying the cerebellum.

Learn our Q&A with Dunn to study extra about his profession mixing artwork and neuroscience; how his cross-disciplinary schooling at Berkeley influenced his work; and his recommendation for artists and neuroscientists on cultivating creativity and discovering one’s distinctive area of interest. This interview was performed on March 11, 2022 and has been edited for size and readability.

Q: You had been an MCB main at Berkeley what had been you learning then? What had been you curious about doing? 

A: On the time, I used to be focused on molecular biology with the emphasis of genetics. Round that point (possibly it was a couple of years after I graduated) was when epigenetics began to change into scorching. My intro to biology was this fascination with the character versus nurture debate, which is one thing that I don’t suppose will ever essentially be solved. However I got here at it from a extra basic standpoint, biologically. 

After I first began faculty at Berkeley, I needed to be a vet. I labored at an area vet there and I studied integrative biology [(IB)] for a pair years. And it was somewhat bit too broad and never sufficient arduous knowledge [for me]. I suppose my questions simply obtained an increasing number of basic as I went by the IB curriculum, and I needed to get extra type of nitty gritty, so I switched in my third yr to MCB.

Q: Did you’re taking any neuroscience programs at Berkeley?

A: I didn’t, really. I feel that molecular biology was most likely extra impressed by my pursuits from my highschool lessons. [But] once I was at Berkeley, I went to the College of Washington for a summer time and did an internship in a neuro lab there, and I did one at Tufts as effectively. I had at all times been within the mind, and I branched off extra intentionally in that path after undergrad.

Q: I noticed that you just labored as a analysis assistant in a neuroscience lab after you graduated. 

A: Yeah, principally I used to be with Al LaSpada. He’s now, I consider, at Duke. He research neurodegeneration. I did loads of microscopy in his lab, some molecular biology, some fly work. I [had also] labored in a biochem lab at Berkeley, within the chemistry division really, with Judith Klinman.

Q: Have been you doing artwork once you had been an undergrad?

A: I really was learning music at Berkeley; that was my minor, ethnomusicology. I’d been a musician my entire life and that had at all times been my inventive output, which was at all times simply important to my sanity. It was good to have some type of inventive outlet to distinction the issue and lack of readability, oftentimes, in organic experiments. There’s simply so many variables, it’s arduous to essentially drill down on a solution that you just’re 100% satisfied is right. So it was good to go dwelling on the finish of the day and be capable to put some effort into one thing and have a tangible object, versus simply mixing one clear liquid with one other clear liquid, and placing it in a machine. It’s simply very existential; molecular bio could be that approach.

Q: What made you go on to do a PhD in neuroscience?

A: I’ve at all times been focused on loads of various things. And in having a troublesome time selecting what I needed to do, [I thought that] the mind is basically on the basic basis of every little thing that we do as people. It’s actually type of the epicenter of what’s attention-grabbing about biology and psychology and philosophy, and a lot of these various fields that I’m focused on. So it made sense to commit a profession to neuroscience. I don’t suppose you’d ever actually be bored. The mind is, as many have stated earlier than me, possible essentially the most complicated object within the identified universe, and there’s loads of stuff to find out about it and research about it.

An artistic rendering of a section through the hippocampus of the brain, in shades of gold, green, and brown. Several highly branching individual neurons are shown, with long fibers extending in roughly a c-shape through the section.

“Hippocampus II” by Greg Dunn (2010, 42” x 42”, enamel on composition gold and aluminum). Commissioned by the College of California, San Diego neuroscience division.

Q: You probably did your PhD on the College of Pennsylvania what was your analysis on?

A: I studied the epigenetics of feeding behaviors; a minimum of that’s theoretically what I began doing. I used to be wanting on the epigenetic regulation of feeding circuits within the hypothalamus, and the way pregnant mice consuming a high-fat weight loss plan would cross traits onto their offspring, and the way that might cross by additional generations. We discovered somewhat little bit of promising knowledge which had me swap my focus to the germline. I used to be learning transmission by the male germline in the previous few years of my PhD, so I actually had little or no to do with the mind, really, from a hardcore analysis standpoint by the top of my doctorate work.

Q: You began doing all your neuroscience artwork throughout grad faculty, proper? What introduced you to try this? 

A hanging scroll with a painting of a gray-black neuron with a gold nucleus, and pink flower blooms on its branches. The background is beige. The body of the neuron is towards the bottom, and its long branches extend upwards like a tree.

“Synaptic Blooming II” by Greg Dunn (2021, approx. 20″ X 70″, ink and 22K gold on sized xuan paper).

A: Yeah, that’s proper, like the primary yr or so. I feel it was most likely impressed equally by my work in Dr. LaSpada’s lab doing loads of microscopy, however then simply beautiful photos of neurons and slices of the mind, that kind of factor, in graduate faculty day by day. It’s simply very inspiring.

I instantly made connections between the world of neurons and the world of pure themes that are extra generally created in Asian artwork, the place you will have these randomly branching buildings which can be oftentimes painted on sparse canvases in like a Zen model or the classical Japanese, Chinese language, Korean traditions. So I noticed a chance to begin to paint the mind in a approach that individuals may respect and probably not know what they had been initially, after which make the connection that the microscopic world actually resembles the pure world, and that nature solves complicated issues by fractal-like designs. These are a number of the preliminary ideas that I used to be working with and proceed to [work with].

I had switched my inventive focus from music to visible artwork. As a result of as I obtained busier I used to be getting married and issues like [that] I spotted that if I had been to proceed with a creative follow on the aspect, I most likely wanted to make somewhat bit of cash doing it. Music is simply not the best way to try this, at this level. With the web, recorded music has change into primarily worthless, or a minimum of far much less worth than it was once, or most likely ought to be. And I’m not the type of man who’s going to go on worldwide excursions or something like that. I had some graphic design expertise engaged on document covers, issues like that, so I made a decision to provide visible artwork a crack. So I’m comparatively new to it; I haven’t been training it since I used to be somewhat child or something. However I’ve at all times had some type of inventive follow.

Q: How was that transition for you? You had been coaching to be a scientist, and you then began doing artwork on the aspect. When did you understand that this might be a profession for you?

A: As I used to be portray within the first few years of grad faculty, I obtained a very good response to the work, and I grew to become a lot better identified for my paintings than I did for my analysis. I used to be realizing I used to be first rate within the lab, however I didn’t suppose I used to be doing something so breakthrough that others wouldn’t have been in a position to try this type of work. Whereas I noticed the intersection of my pursuits and the way it manifested in my representations of the mind artistically as being a way more personally related undertaking, and in addition one the place I felt like I may contribute extra to society at giant to make stunning photographs of the mind that the common non-professional may take up and select to understand. I feel lots of people are actually intimidated [by the brain], and I noticed having accessible photographs as a approach to get individuals focused on it, significantly youngsters. In order that’s what drew me to it.

Then a turning level in my profession was once I obtained an enormous fee to do a big gold leaf portray for the foyer of the Society for Neuroscience their headquarters in Washington. Mainly, they paid me to place a large billboard in the course of the most effective location within the universe. So lots of people began to study it then, and one factor led to a different. I opened up somewhat net store and began promoting prints. By the point I used to be ending my PhD, my spouse, who can be an artist, satisfied me [by saying,] ‘Why don’t you give this a shot? It looks as if it’s going fairly effectively.’

It was undoubtedly a time of excessive anxiousness. Society at giant oftentimes tells individuals, ‘It’s most likely higher to not be an artist. As an alternative of being an artist, possibly you must get a PhD.’ And I went the other approach from that. Not being sure if I’d be capable to do it, not being sure if I’d be capable to help a household doing it that type of factor made me somewhat bit nervous. 

However I had the chance to be setting this profession up as I used to be in grad faculty, which was actually, very nice. I had my grad faculty profession, I had a gradual earnings, and I had a horizon I knew when the top of grad faculty was coming, give or take a couple of months. I used to be capable of arrange a bunch of commissions and arrange a plan a yr or two forward of time in order that once I completed grad faculty, I’d be capable to hit the bottom working with some commissions and another work that I had lined up. 

I suppose the transition was just like some classes I’d discovered within the lab, which is that it’s at all times a good suggestion to have type of rote, comparatively extra easy, step-by-step forms of experiments which can be producing knowledge at a gradual tempo, along with your extra high-risk, high-payoff kind experiments which can be occurring in parallel. That’s how I attempt to do my artwork as effectively. I’ll have issues that I do know are going to be attention-grabbing to me which can be themes that individuals like, as a result of that’s additionally one thing that’s actually essential. For those who’re making a dwelling as an artist, it’s a must to take that type of factor into consideration. After which to have the ability to do my very own sorts of tasks, those that curiosity me somewhat bit extra, and see how they fly with my viewers. That’s been an attention-grabbing journey, and there’s been twists and turns alongside the best way in that regard.

Q: Are there different ways in which you are feeling your scientific coaching feeds into your artwork?

A: Completely. Understanding methods to compose experiments is extremely essential. Being in a lab actually offers you the flexibility to coach your instincts as to what’s a promising line of inquiry and what’s not. Very like within the lab, with artwork, you’ll be able to study fairly shortly once you’re creating a brand new method for instance, what’s going to bear fruit and what isn’t. And oftentimes, it’s the issues that you just don’t comply with up on which find yourself being those that offer you success, simply since you’re not losing your time on a bunch of crap that’s not going to repay or produce something attention-grabbing. That’s actually essential. [Also,] the flexibility to prepare your ideas, to have the ability to provide you with an thought and execute it, and an understanding of chemistry and supplies. 

Art piece in gold and brownish tones, depicting cross sections of roughly concentric circles of myelin around gold axons. Cells that produce myelin are shown in dark gray.

“Myelination” by Greg Dunn (2015, 22″ X 30″, 12K gold, dye, and mica on minimize acrylic panel).

Understanding what supplies you’re utilizing and the way they operate is extremely essential. I developed this method known as reflective microetching with my buddy Brian [Edwards], who’s an utilized physicist at Penn. There’s loads of optics, there’s laptop science, there’s physics, and there’s microfabrication-type work, which is all fairly technically demanding. With out the deeper understanding of science that I had gotten in grad faculty and undergrad, I don’t suppose I’d be capable to pull that type of factor off. I feel that it offers me the flexibility to do some forms of issues that I feel individuals with out that coaching would have a fairly arduous time doing. So I’m actually grateful for that coaching.

I undoubtedly preserve one foot within the lab; I preserve my ear to the bottom research-wise. I’m not in a moist lab doing neuroscience analysis or something like that anymore. However once I’m engaged on sure forms of neuroscience items, I’m actually making an attempt to be very cognizant of what’s lacking within the knowledge like what are the visualizations that don’t exist on the market that might be actually useful for individuals to have the ability to see.

For instance, I simply spent three months on a bit in regards to the spinal twine that I’m going to be releasing later this yr, as a result of I’ve by no means seen very detailed schematics of what the circuitry seems to be like and what the stream of data seems to be like. This method that I discussed, microetching, is a chance to make brief animations of neural exercise by mild reflecting off these microengraved surfaces. It’s a chance for individuals to face proper in entrance of a bodily object and take up the complexity of the mind and have that sink in emotionally. I feel that’s how individuals study essentially the most successfully when their feelings are touched.

Q: Do you collaborate with scientists, with neuroscientists?

A: Yeah. Principally with my collaborator, Brian, who’s extra of an engineer than a neuroscientist. However for some tasks, I undoubtedly do like to talk to neuroscientists who specialise in particular areas. For this big piece [Self Reflected] that he and I did in 2014-16, which is a Nationwide Science Basis funded piece, we consulted with 20-30 neuroscientists on all completely different areas of the mind in order that we may get loads of the main points right. The purpose of that piece was to be essentially the most complicated visualization of the mind that had been created, a minimum of from a creative standpoint. I’m fairly sure that it nonetheless stands as that to at the present time. 

So we needed to get it actually correct. We needed youngsters and random of us coming into the museum as a result of it’s hanging within the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia to have the ability to see it and to have the ability to get one thing fundamental out of it. If it’s nothing greater than, ‘Wow, the mind is extraordinarily difficult’, that’s a win. However we additionally needed professionals to have the ability to have a look at it and never solely see its accuracy, however to have the ability to get a broader perspective. As a result of as scientists, it’s very simple to get caught up in your one tiny little area of interest and neglect the larger image. That’s significantly true in neuroscience, and that’s significantly true for people who find themselves learning single cell work or molecular composition.

My work type of spans all kinds from extra summary, to extra extremely reasonable and detailed.



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