Submerged // Interview with SciArt Center

My recent interview with Marnie Benney, the curator for the SciArt Center's Submerged exhibition. From the SciArt Magazine blog.

"SUBMERGED" is SciArt Center's most recent exhibition, and surrounds themes of water in its variety of forms and the creatures that inhabit it. Exhibit curator Marnie Benney asked artist and neuroscientist Luke Maninov Hammond to share a bit about his work, and the artistic and scientific processes behind it:

Marnie Benney: Can you explain the relationship between your research and chosen medium and how one informs the other?

Luke Maninov Hammond: In my area of neuroscience we are exploring unknown and invisible worlds, often for the first time. This informs my practice and helps me to reflect on designs for jewelry.  Often I simply want to share the wonder of this process through its original form, as images, in case it may stir curiosity in others as it did for me. Finding ways to transform and represent the images we generate for artistic purposes is not necessarily mutually exclusive from finding ways to explore them for scientific discovery. Our minds have a tendency to only find what they are looking for, selectivity narrowing our vision and letting unexpected discoveries pass us by. I think transitioning between science and art provides an opportunity to see these images through different lenses, helping  both my artistic practice and my work in microscopy.

In addition to this, my experience in both fields has taught me to think flexibly so that I can combine techniques in novel and interesting ways. I feel that an important aspect of creativity in both science and art stems from a deep understanding of the field and the tools available to you. While understanding a field takes time, both fields reinforce common pathways in the brain for experimenting with tools, learning what they are capable of, what their limits are, and eventually providing a proficiency to express ideas and create meaningful work.

MB: What do you think of the union of art and science?

LMH: Science is advancing at an unprecedented rate and I believe artists can play a critical role in communicating how our understanding of the world, and ourselves, is evolving. Sparking a sense of wonder, interpreting discoveries in novel ways, and raising new questions through art is important for starting conversations and building awareness of scientific advancement. Breaking down the barriers between the public and science is essential in maintaining the public’s support of research, ensuring our ability to continue improving quality of life and developing new treatments to disease. In return, science offers artists new worlds to explore, providing unfamiliar symbols and palettes ready to be reimagined and repurposed.

MB: What was your greatest learning experience when you were creating this artwork?

LMH: Learning to efficiently manipulate and represent large datasets was the most important aspect to creating these images. Capturing the images is comparatively easy now, advanced imaging devices allow us to capture huge amounts of data very quickly. For example, the camera used for these experiments can generate 400 MB/s. The real challenge is how to put these images back together into a single dataset, and critically for research, how to explore these datasets to uncover meaningful insights.

In this case, each individual fish comprises thousands of single 2D images amounting to over 20 GB of data (roughly equivalent to 7,000 smartphone photos) that needs to be combined and aligned in 3D space. To further manipulate the images requires developing custom software tools, which has become an essential and rewarding part of my work.

Observing Vision II: Created in collaboration with Dr. Jeremy Ullmann at the University of Queensland's, Queensland Brain Institute.

Observing Vision II: Created in collaboration with Dr. Jeremy Ullmann at the University of Queensland's, Queensland Brain Institute.

Observing Vision // SciArt Centre Exhibition

Some of the images I created while at Queensland Brain Institute have been selected for a group show alongside 20 other international artists as part of the SciArt Centre Submerged exhibition
These images were captured in collaboration with Dr. Jeremy Ullmann, now a research fellow at the Boston Children's Hospital. Taking advantage of the transparent skin of the zebrafish we were able to image and observe individual brain cells,  called neurons, within the living brain. Many gigabytes of individual images were captured and reconstructed to produce the images of the brain and eyes of the zebrafish shown here. 

Observing Vision I

Observing Vision I

Images captured at high-resolution in 3D using state-of-the-art fluorescence microscopy at the University of Queensland's, Queensland Brain Institute.

The Medical Startup // Interview

I recently caught up with Louise Teo about science, jewellery and my exhibitions with Pieces of Eight and Artisan. Below is a copy of the interview originally published at The Medical Startup.

Can you tell us about your neuroscience career?

When I was studying neuroscience, all I wanted to do was get involved in research on consciousness, but I took a side step and started an imaging project in a cancer biology lab with Prof. Jennifer Stow at the University of Queensland.   This is when I first started using microscopes to image fluorescent proteins in cells. 

It’s one thing to know that without your awareness, every single cell in your body is almost vibrating with activity and something entirely different to actually see it with your own eyes. Looking down into an ocean of darkness and seeing dynamic glowing worlds alive within cells was a profound experience that completely captured my imagination. 

A few years later I had the opportunity to join the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI), where I worked to establish an imaging facility so these techniques could be used to study the brain. It’s been an incredible journey to see fluorescent imaging move from allowing us to see inside single cells, to watching neurons within the brain flashing with activity.  After almost 9 years with QBI I’m about to start a new position managing and establishing a new facility at the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behaviour Institute, Columbia University in New York City.

What did your work at QBI focus on?

My work at QBI was focused on establishing a microscopy facility that offered the world’s most advanced imaging capabilities and working with QBI’s researchers to ensure they could use these instruments to make novel discoveries about the brain. This included working on projects trying to understand how neurotransmitters are released, how axons regenerate, and how to treat diseases like Alzheimer’s or motor neurone disease.

Most recently my colleagues and I published a new paper in Molecular Neurobiology which contributes key insights into how vitamin D deficiency during embryonic development can alter the brain’s dopamine system.

“Within the In-Between” reveals the brain cells and their complex interwoven processes. To create this image, varying colours have been used to reflect the changing depths of the neuronal processes as they extend through the brain. This image was captured at high-resolution in 3D using state-of-the-art fluorescence microscopy at the University of Queensland’s Queensland Brain Institute.” This is one of several limited-edition prints that can be purchased for schizophrenia research. Image copyright Luke Maninov Hammond

Within the In-Between” reveals the brain cells and their complex interwoven processes. To create this image, varying colours have been used to reflect the changing depths of the neuronal processes as they extend through the brain. This image was captured at high-resolution in 3D using state-of-the-art fluorescence microscopy at the University of Queensland’s Queensland Brain Institute.” This is one of several limited-edition prints that can be purchased for schizophrenia research. Image copyright Luke Maninov Hammond

Fluorescence microscopy essentially makes the invisible worlds within cells and brains visible with glowing proteins and dyes. 

Due to recent advancements we can now see objects down to 20nm in size, that’s 5000x finer than a human hair, in living cells and tissue. It’s truly amazing what we can achieve. We are in the midst of a revolution for biomedical imaging, it’s a very exciting time for brain science.

How did you start making jewellery and fine art?

I started making jewellery and objects as a new creative outlet and a way of exploring 3D form. I primarily use a technique called “Lost-Wax Casting,” which involves sculpting and creating a wax object that can be transferred into precious metal.

I fell in love with the analogue process of working with my hands to create these forms, and have been experimenting with it ever since. There is an inherent joy in creating something out of nothing based on an idea which emerges at the edge of your imagination.

Agreed! What was the point when you realised the link between your neuroscience work and a physical expression of creativity?

My practice has always been about reimagining biological form to explore themes of impermanence, consciousness and connection between living things. From the beginning I think the jewellery I was creating was informed by the 3D imaging and analysis I was performing in science but a few years in I realised it made sense to explore neuroscience more deliberately.

What, if any, resistance or challenges have you had to overcome from others, or self-doubts from yourself, when crossing between the science and fashion/design worlds?

Certainly I’ve learnt to overcome a lot of self-doubt in teaching myself to create jewellery. Navigating a path between science and art can be challenging too, in the sense that you don’t want your involvement in one role to call into question your capacity for the other. While there can be a lot of overlap, especially in creativity and coming up with ideas, in science we are required to make unbiased, precise and accurate measurements in order to understand complex processes, and this is not always the work of an artist.

On the other hand, we are exploring an unseen world for the first time, and there is an important role for art to play in sharing this with rest of the world and communicating these discoveries in ways that capture our imagination. It’s encouraging to see growing interest in bridging the worlds of art and science.

Unfolding Object. Sterling silver, Australian sapphires, gold vermeil and patina. Housed in glass bell jar.

Unfolding Object. Sterling silver, Australian sapphires, gold vermeil and patina. Housed in glass bell jar.

How did the Pieces of Eight exhibition come about (in Melbourne)?

Melanie Katsalidis, the Director of Pieces of Eight, began representing my work last year. When the possibility to propose an exhibition came up, I put forward the concept of “Beneath the Surface.” I only had a few weeks to work on the show, but the timing ended up perfect as I was able to complete the project just in time to be ready to move to New York.

What do you hope people will learn or gain from your exhibition?

The exhibition explores the story of green fluorescent protein, the glowing protein discovered in jellyfish by Osamu Shimomura, from which fluorescence microscopy and our ability to see the invisible stems. It draws parallels between the unfolding microscopic structures beneath our skin and those in the depths of the ocean.

I think it’s a story stranger than fiction, that our exploration of the sea has enabled us to illuminate the living brain and journey inwards.

I hope people will come away with an interest in what is being discovered in neuroscience and a sense of wonder in the hidden beauty within us. Part of the exhibition includes large-format cellular images of the brain, which we rarely get to share with the public, so I hope this will capture people’s imaginations.

As with my other work, the pieces represent the unfolding nature of life, encouraging reflection on our coming out of the world, rather than coming into it.

 

“Enclosed Radial” ring. Sterling silver, Australian sapphires, gold vermeil, patina.

Enclosed Radial” ring. Sterling silver, Australian sapphires, gold vermeil, patina.

Neuroscience and ageing can be very intimidating subjects; how can we make the brain and neuroscience more accessible to others? 

It’s true, people can put a mental block on understanding topics like this as they appear intimidating. This is why it’s important for science to engage with artists and communicators to come up with novel ways of sharing discoveries and breaking down the barrier that exists between science and the general public.

I think microscopy has a key role to play here too, the images we capture are able to directly convey the story of disease and how the brain works. Often these images are never seen by more than one or two people, as they are distilled into graphs and data points for publication, but I hope we can find more ways of sharing them more broadly. I’ve seen some amazing reactions to the few images I’ve been able to share in my exhibitions and believe they hold a capacity to spark a genuine interest in science and self discovery.