Artists and Scientists Collaborate on Dynamic Interdisciplinary Sculpture Project

By Catherine Probst

Often considered polar opposites, artists and scientists approach creativity and research in different ways and from vastly different perspectives. But when working together, they have the potential to help us see the world around us in exciting new ways.

This is exactly what several Mason faculty members and students set out to accomplish when they created an interpretive three-dimensional sculpture called Mental Floss. Made with hundreds of yards of copper wire and glass beads, the sculpture depicts neurons located in the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for processing autobiographic memories. It also illustrates how people with varying skills can come together for a common goal.

Mason researcher Giorgio Ascoli works with students Alice Quatrochi, Alex Giller, and Todd Gillette on a sculpture that represents part of the mammalian brain. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

As an artist and scientist, Mason theoretical physicist Paul So admits he never gave a lot of thought to combining art and science until he was approached by his colleague Helen Frederick, a professor in the School of Art. Together, So and Frederick joined forces with fellow Mason faculty Giorgio Ascoli, University Professor of Molecular Neuroscience at Mason’s Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study.

Ascoli’s research aims to understand how the brain relates to the mind at the level of neuronal morphology–the “shape” of nerve cells. His lab uses advanced experimental and computational techniques to visualize these tree-like structures in virtual reality. After much deliberation, Ascoli, Frederick, and So decided to create a project truly integrating art and science.

A close up of the sculpture Mental Floss. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

“Our goal for this project was to provoke viewers to ponder not only how intricate and complex the inner fabric of the brain appears, but also how beautiful and awe-inspiring it can be, providing a bridge between rational thought and emotions,” says Ascoli.

Scientists are trained to assume a very formulaic approach to their work that differs from artists–they develop a hypothesis, follow the steps of the scientific method, and arrive at a documented conclusion. Artists, on the other hand, are more open-ended in their work–they are constantly re-tooling their methods until they meet an outcome that works for them.

The faculty enlisted the help of two undergraduate students—bachelor of individualized study major Alice Quatrochi and theater major Alex Giller. Quatrochi, who completed her degree in 2012, led the team as it began work on the project in spring 2011.

Mental Floss has been on display in the Great Room of the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study on the Fairfax Campus. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

“Although my background is in graphic design and illustration, my own motivation for joining this project grew from a desire to learn more about neuroscience and cognition and to have access to neuronal images as sources of inspiration,” says Quatrochi. “I really wanted to be a part of the intersection of art and science.”

The pair met weekly with Ascoli throughout the project and began by inspecting computer images of just a handful of the millions of neurons in the brain. For this, they enlisted the help of neuroscience PhD student Todd Gillette, who guided them through NeuroMorpho.Org, the largest international collection of three-dimensional neuronal constructions, which is managed in Ascoli’s research center.

Mason students Alice Quatrochi and Todd Gillette were part of the team working with Mason neuroscientist Giorgio Ascoli (right) on a sculpture representing 13 neurons from the hippocampus of the brain. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

From the collection, the team chose to construct 13 different neurons that represent the four regions of the hippocampus. Studying each neuron thoroughly, they analyzed all the neurons’ different parts, including the dendrites, axon, and soma, and how they are connected to one another. This analysis, notes Quatrochi, helped them appreciate the complexity, beauty, and functionality of neurons.

To emphasize the thinness of the neurons, Quatrochi, Giller, and Ascoli decided to build each one separately with metal wire, a task that was not without its challenges. Throughout the process, they came up with five different ways to construct and connect the neurons, each one not quite right and often leaving the sculpture too brittle.

“At this point, I did what any artist would do and called in Helen and Paul for a generative art review of the project,” says Quatrochi. “This is one of the ways in which scientists and artists differ in their work. Scientists will complete their project and draw conclusions afterward, but artists bring in different opinions along the way to make sure their methodologies are aligning properly with their end goal.”

Realizing the sculpture needed more support, Quatrochi headed to the hardware store. Walking down each aisle and thinking methodically about the project, she emerged with hundreds of feet of telephone cable. Back in the art studio, Quatrochi and Giller promptly cut open each cable to reveal shiny copper wiring beneath, the perfect material to hold the various twists and turns of each neuron.

The next several months were spent manipulating and contorting the wire to develop the aesthetic identity of the piece while at the same time trying to resemble as faithfully as possible the shape of the neurons. To assist viewers of the sculpture, glass beads were threaded on the wiring to attract light and identify each neuron by a unique color.

“We intended the end result of this project to be a piece of artwork, but also a learning tool that can be used in and out of the classroom and the lab,” says Ascoli. “Along the way, we wanted to explore and demonstrate how the artistic and scientific communities think, but especially how they can think together, approaching the same project and distill it into a common end goal.”

Since the completion of the project in late summer 2012, the sculpture has been displayed at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia. There are also plans to take the sculpture to conferences, museums, and galleries around the country. When at Mason, Mental Floss is displayed in the Great Room at Krasnow.

Funded by the Center for Consciousness and Transformation, the project was one of three science+art exchange projects organized under an umbrella initiative called the SOFAlab, which is collaboratively administrated by the Mason’s School of Art; the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts, a nonprofit organization that offers healing and wellness programs; and the Hamiltonian Artists, a nonprofit fellowship program founded by So and dedicated to helping emerging artists.

This article originally appeared on the university’s News site.

To read more stories about Mason, check out the university’s News site.

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