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  • Nicole Avakyan

The power of multidisciplinary collaboration: A sculptor’s exploration of the brain.

Updated: Sep 9, 2018

By Fernanda Pérez Gay Juárez

In a famous lecture delivered in Cambridge in 1959, the physicist and novelist C.P. Snow regretted the division of what he called “The Two Cultures”: Art and Science. He believed that modern western society was getting dangerously divided into two intellectual groups that had almost ceased to communicate at all. Sixty years later, it is still true that modern education prepares you to make a big choice at quite an early age: “are you leaning towards the humanities or towards science?” From the moment when we choose our professional path, most of the educational resources we will have access to will focus essentially on one area of study, with little room for multidisciplinary work.

Founded in 2016 by neuroscientist and graphic designer Dr. Cristian Zaelzer, the Convergence - Perceptions of Neuroscience initiative attempts to outwit these boundaries. During its first two years, Convergence has developed a tight partnership with the Brain Repair and Integrative Neuroscience Program (BRaIN) of the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC), the Faculty of Fine Arts of Concordia University (FoFA), and the Canadian Association for Neuroscience (CAN/ACN). The partnership has been continuously supported by the RI-MUHC, the Montreal General Hospital Foundation, McGill University Integrative Program in Neurosciences (IPN), and the Visual Voice Gallery. The collaborative work directed by Convergence has established strategies to bridge the gap between art and science by organizing tours of laboratories and art-galleries, coordinating art-science conferences from artists, and engaging in science outreach events.

More importantly, and core to the work of the initiative, Convergence participated in the development of a DART course offered by Concordia University’s Faculty of Fine Arts. This class, DART461, fostered collaborations between Fine Arts students at Concordia and Neuroscience students at McGill. Based on a “two-way engagement” framework, students from these traditionally separated domains worked together during four months to learn about each other’s projects and methods, and create a series of science-inspired artworks. The experience concluded in May of 2017 with three public exhibitions of art inspired by the neuroscience-arts collaborations (Go to the end of the article for information on the 2018 edition of the course). Within the fold of this collaborative experience, Paméla Simard, a woodworking sculptor who recently completed her Bachelor of Arts degree at Concordia, collaborated with Hunter Shaw, Ph.D. candidate in the Physiology department at McGill University and researcher in the BRaIN Program studying the visual system of the Drosophila fruit fly.

After making the early-life “science vs. humanities” choice, most people outside the scientific fields lose touch with scientific culture completely and feel that, without a rational understanding of science, they cannot be a part of it. Paméla experienced this feeling when she was first faced with Hunter Shaw’s scientific work: “I had to work with images I did not understand. Hunter was great at explaining what he does throughout the project” shared Paméla, “but there was only so little that I can absorb because I do not know anything about this field. During his explanations, he made sketches. I would then keep the sketches hoping they would make sense later on”. However, the artistic process came into the equation to impart a different kind of understanding: Direct experience. Paméla revealed that feeling, experiencing, appreciating the scientific work gave her a new perspective: “Looking at the images of the Drosophila brain I fell completely in love with them, even without knowing what they were. I made multiple drawings of them, they became more and more abstract.”

Artist Paméla Simard, designer Alexa Piotte and neuroscience PhD student Hunter Shaw (from left to right) share ideas to create neuroscience-inspired artwork. Credit: Alex Tran.

By bringing their talents together, Paméla and Hunter generated a stunning neuroscience-inspired art piece: an installation comprising various pieces of hand laminated wood and a magnifying glass. The story of their collaborative process is also a story about the creation of a bridge, born from the exploration of the similarities between the artistic and the scientific process. A process through which they got to know each other, witness their partner’s work process and environment, and, according to Paméla, through which they also came to acknowledge their vulnerability, shared fears and professional doubts. “The scientist and the artist are both full of self-doubt. Something that I learned from this collaboration was that scientists keep questioning themselves: Is the thing that I am trying to be good at the right thing? The same happens to the artist”.

Hand laminated wood pieces created by Paméla Simard from fluorescence microscopy images of the fruit fly brain following a collaboration with neuroscientist Hunter Shaw. Credit: Alex Tran.

After this collaboration, Paméla wrapped up her Bachelor degree and moved to upstate New York to pursue a Master of Fine Arts focused in Sculpture and Dimensional Studies at Alfred University. Little did she know that, thanks to her first experience with neuroscience research, a new, challenging project was about to emerge. A few weeks after moving to her new home, she was contacted by Dr. Keith Murai, BRaIN program director, who asked her to build another piece. “Marie St-Laurent (BRaIN Program Manager), Yvonne Gardner (BRaIN Program Assistant), and I had an idea to do something special for the BRaIN Program at The Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre” he shared. “For many years, we have been wanting to replace our 25-year-old, dilapidated lectern in the symposium room at the Montreal General Hospital and hoping we could do something different with a unique and inspiring touch. I fondly remembered Paméla Simard at Concordia from Convergence and her amazing collaboration with Mr. Hunter Shaw. We thus reached out to her and presented the idea of creating a new lectern for the program”.

Paméla was amazed at how open the request was: “They seemed pretty confident and let me create freely: They just told me they wanted something neuroscience-related. It was both amazing and terrifying.” Through her creative process, Paméla re-experienced the parallels between the artistic and the scientific streams. “In both science and art, you start with observation”, she says. Paméla began by asking for images of neuroscience-related research projects obtained at McGill. These images included both anatomical atlases and microscopy images. Getting inspiration from these images, she went on to the next part of the process: “You then ask questions about what is it that you want to understand. To make your hypothesis and design an experiment that will lead you to prove or disprove it. My question was: how can I make something that is inclusive, representative of all the scientists that work at the brain institute? I wanted to create something figurative enough for people to know that it is a brain institute but also abstract enough to leave room for imagination, because that’s what both science and art are about: Imagination”.

After questioning came planning, and then experimentation. In Paméla’s own words it is “the process of trying things, breaking things, re-assembling, deconstructing, putting together, gluing, removing, and all this back-and-forth between the rupture and the creation of something”. The final piece, in the words of the artist, can be conceptualized according to the multiple “layers” of neuroscience investigation: “The first part is more anatomical and then it goes down to the cellular level, representing the synaptic connections, and then the molecular level, becoming more and more abstract. For me, there was this idea of an easily recognizable, bigger entity, that becomes something way more complex and quickly turns to the abstract. This abstraction at the bottom, I believe, is representative of our own thought processes, shared by artists and scientists”.

Paméla Simard in her workshop. Credit: Alex Tran.

Finally, on Monday July 23rd, Paméla and the directors of the BRaIN program hosted the lectern’s presentation at the Montreal General Hospital’s Livingston Building (Lectern pictured below, credit: Alex Tran). During the event, Paméla delivered a talk entitled Exploring the BRaIN: An Artist's Protocol. While the creation process is coming to a close, the appreciation phase is only beginning, opening the door to a never-ending appreciation and interpretation of the artwork by the scientists and clinicians working at the Research Center. “I hope that the scientists and clinicians who will be looking at the lectern throughout the years will look at it with amazement for what they recognize and also for what they don’t recognize but still speaks to them” Paméla said.

In Dr. Murai’s perspective, neuroscience and art have more in common than most people think. “If you think back to the earliest investigations of the brain”, he said, “they were performed by highly creative individuals such as Santiago Ramón y Cajal. At the time (1800's - early 1900's), scientists lacked the sophisticated microscopes and electronics of today and relied on pencil- and ink-on-paper to describe what they discovered. In many ways, they relied on their artistic skills to communicate and translate what they observed.” While the modern technologies and increasingly specialized science research topics seem to have estranged researchers from the artistic quest in scientific research, he believes the new lectern will remind researchers of the power of multidisciplinary work: “I hope this project will inspire all of us to be collaborative yet unique, and think beyond the barriers of our work space. By doing so, life will be more interesting and our contributions more impactful”.

Find out more about Paméla Simard's work on her website:

Acknowledgement: Dr. Keith Murai would like to recognize the efforts of everyone involved in the lectern project: “We are extremely grateful to Rebecca Duclos (Dean, Concordia's Faculty of Fine Arts), PK Langshaw (Chair, Design and Computation Arts), and Tom Simpkins (Concordia's woodshop) for their enthusiasm and support for this project and really helping to make this project feasible.”

DART course: Starting this fall, the collaborative Art-Neuroscience course will be offered again by the Faculty of Fine Arts at Concordia in collaboration with Convergence, in an expanded, year-long format (DART498/CART498/DART631). Both Fine Arts students from Concordia and McGill students pursuing an Integrated Program in Neuroscience (IPN) are invited to register. Find more information here.

Editor: Nicole Avakyan

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