Science Market Update

Penn Neuroscientist Explores Life Science Structures as Successful Neural Artist

Posted by Jaimee Saliba on Tue, Oct 23, 2012

With the advances in microscopy and digital imagery today, it's not unusual to find yourself looking at visual representations from the micro-world of the lab that are truly beautiful to behold, both for what they tell us about the science of life and on an aesthetic level as well. Some of the images might be said to qualify as art. In the case of Greg Dunn, PhD Neuroscience 2011 from the University of Pennsylvania, neural art has become his profession, and departments of neuroscience across the US have commissioned his large, metallic and ink visions for their offices, libraries, and reception halls. Influenced by Japanese art, completely self-taught, and still very much the scientist with his subject matter, Dunn's work is quite simply spectacular, and a great deal more than an homage to the neuron. 

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[Synaptogenesis, in gold, mica and enamel, commissioned by Neuropore Therapies, San Diego, 2011]


Dunn began experimenting with neural images in art media (ink, enamel, gold leaf) while he was a young graduate student at Penn. In blowing ink across a background surface for one of his art pieces, he had an insight into the similarity of structures, which he discussed in an article on his work in Discover Magazine earlier this year:

"The reason the technique works really well is because it's directly related to how neurons are actually behaving." Dunn calls this the "fractal solution to the universe."

It's not especially mystical: all kinds of structures seek out the path of least resistance (or greatest benefit) in their growth. What's provocative is that the form those structures take is so often similar. In an interview with The Beautiful Brain (an online magazine at the juncture of art and neuroscience), Dunn expands on this fractal solution:

The branching form of a dendrite is nearly identical to the form of a branching tree, a series of cracks in the pavement, the movement of rivers and streams as viewed from space, or a lightning bolt.

Dunn's neural artwork first appeared on a magazine cover in 2009, when a piece (Glomerulus, below) commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania appeared on the front of the Journal of Neuroscience accompanying an article on a similar subject by two University of Colorado neuroscientists. The enamel on gold piece hangs in the Barchi Library at Penn.

penn neuron art

[Glomerulus, enamel on composition gold, copper, and latex, 2009, commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania]

In addition to commissions by Penn and Neuropore, other works by Dunn have been created for:


philly neuroscience

[Developing Cerebral Cortex, in gold, dye and enamel, commissioned for the Society for Neuroscience, 2012]

If you're thinking this all sounds very 21st Century (magazines, exhibitions, blogs, and major newspaper articles devoted to neural art), in fact it isn't. Dunn isn't even the first research scientist to gain fame as an artist depicting the brain. That distinction goes to late 19th-early 20th Century neuro-anatomist and Nobel Prize winner Santiago Ramon y Cajal, who was the first to accurately depict what the brain and nervous system do in his drawings. We can also thank him for immediately opening up the artistic possibilities of his subject for future life science artists like Dunn (see Cajal image below).


neural anatomy as art

[Courtesy of the Cajal Legacy Instituto Cajal (CSIC), Madrid, via Discover Magazine article]


Greg Dunn is now a full-time artist with his studio in a former tobacco warehouse in Philadelphia. His work is available in limited-edition prints as well as originals, and he happily extends a graduate student discount to enthusiasts wanting to start their neural art collection early.


science art wonder


Biotechnology Calendar, Inc. looks forward to bringing basic science researchers and professional lab equipment vendors together in Philadelphia each spring to talk shop and eat good food at our two Philly tradeshow events, to be held next on May 15-16, 2013:

For information on exhibiting at either of these events, click the buttons below:

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Biotechnology Calendar, Inc. is a full-service event marketing and planning company producing on-campus life science research tradeshows nationwide for going on 21 years. We plan and promote each event to bring the best products and services to the best research campuses across the country. Life science researchers, purchasing agents, and lab managers are actively invited to attend to see the latest products and equipment and discuss their laboratory tool and service needs. See our Nationwide Show Schedule for 2013.

Tags: Pennsylvania, Northeast, University of Pennsylvania, UPenn, Thomas Jefferson University, 2012, Neuroscience, Philadelphia, BioResearch Product Faire Event, Front Line event, ThomJeff

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