Those of you who have read my blog before, know that 2 years ago I (temporarily) left the field of neuroscience, which is the area of my expertise and passion. Due to life circumstances, I had to switch to an agnostic field of high throughput image-based screening for novel drug candidates. While this work provides a rich source of microscopy images that may feed my artwork, not a day goes by that I miss working with neurons. The institution I work for is Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, which (not surprisingly) is focused on the field of oncology. While it is no doubt a very important area of scientific research, it is just not my cup of tea.
However, even here an occasional gem comes along. For the past year and a half, I have been working closely with a graduate student, whose research is focused on stem cell-derived cortical neurons. Just looking at these images warms my heart. During our time working together, I have also shared my artistic side with him. And then a couple months ago, he approached me with an unusual request.
He told me a touching story about a passionate grad student in his lab, who works with stem cell-derived trigeminal neurons, which can mimic our facial nerves in a dish. During their development in vitro, these cells form beautiful structures, with nerve bundles emanating from a central cell cluster. Whether it is your field of interest or not, you cannot help but admire them. While I do have particular expertise in facial neurons, I have no doubt that their biological functions is fascinating as well. Unfortunately, the graduate student has a sick mother who lives in a different state and needs a caretaker. So the student will be forced to leave her research to attend to her. And the city where she will be living does not have major research institutions. Left with no choice, she will need to leave her work and will greatly miss her research. I can relate.
Therefore, my collaborator asked me for a special commission – a dream catcher with her favorite cells, based directly on one of the images she acquired in the lab (below). This was a new challenge for me, because while I have made dream catchers during my teenage years, I have never filled them with beadwork. I had some concerns about the density and methods of attaching the wires to the net.
I started out with a 3-dimensional (of course!) central cell cluster that is labeled with 2 nuclear markers – one that ubiquitously labels all nuclei and one that labels a nuclear protein specific to these cells. From there, I began to extend the neuronal processes out towards the edges of the dream catcher. Over the next several days and after some internal debates, I ended up expanding the central cluster to make it more realistic. It made me question the aesthetic qualities of the piece, but I wanted to stay true to the science. Following that theme, I also added some thicker side bundles and began to decorate them with single cells with blue and pink nuclei. According to the original photo, these can appear both individually and in clusters, as they travel along the established paths provided by the axons.
At the last moment, I decided to add tassels on the bottom to make it look more like a dream catcher. To me, the name of this decoration alone provides a great metaphor for staying true to your passions. No matter what life throws at you, never let go of your dreams.
Several weeks later, I finally heard back from my colleague. I really tried to hold myself back from bugging him with questions. It turned out that the girl who is leaving the lab absolutely loved it!
I like the idea of making these smaller projects that can be fun, less time consuming and more affordable. I already have some new ideas… What dreams do you think are worth capturing?
Would love to hear from you in the comments!