“It’s an opportunity for people to stand right in front of a physical object and absorb the complexity of the brain and have that sink in emotionally. I think that’s how people learn the most effectively — when their emotions are touched.”
Greg Dunn, PhD (UCB alum, class of 2002)
Greg Dunn is an artist with a PhD in Neuroscience, whose work highlights the beauty and complexity of the nervous system. From delicate paintings of neurons on scrolls to intricate depictions of the activity of hundreds of thousands of neurons, Dunn aims to inspire a sense of awe and wonder about the brain through his art. His pieces have been exhibited internationally to wide acclaim, and hang in science museums, universities, offices, and personal collections.
As an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, Dunn pursued both science and art as a Molecular and Cell Biology (MCB) major with a minor in ethnomusicology. A musician since childhood, Dunn switched his artistic focus to visual art while earning his PhD in Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania, inspired by images of neurons and brain slices and the similarities he saw to shapes in Asian art. His artistic career took off when the Society for Neuroscience commissioned him to create a large gold leaf painting for their headquarters while he was still a graduate student.
Now Dunn works as an artist full-time, but still collaborates with neuroscientists and follows neuroscience research to inspire and inform his work. He says his scientific training contributed to his art in many ways, including his ability to create new techniques such as reflective microetching, which he developed with his collaborator, physicist Brian Edwards. They used this technique to generate highly-detailed animations of neural activity in their National Science Foundation funded piece, Self Reflected, which is permanently displayed in the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Dunn believes that it is the most complex artistic visualization of the brain to date.
Read our Q&A with Dunn to learn more about his career blending art and neuroscience; how his cross-disciplinary education at Berkeley influenced his work; and his advice for artists and neuroscientists on cultivating creativity and finding one’s unique niche. This interview was conducted on March 11, 2022 and has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You were an MCB major at Berkeley — what were you studying then? What were you interested in doing?
A: At the time, I was interested in molecular biology with the emphasis of genetics. Around that time (maybe it was a few years after I graduated) was when epigenetics started to become hot. My intro to biology was this fascination with the nature versus nurture debate, which is something that I don’t think will ever necessarily be solved. But I came at it from a more fundamental standpoint, biologically.
When I first started school at Berkeley, I wanted to be a vet. I worked at a local vet there and I studied integrative biology [(IB)] for a couple years. And it was a little bit too broad and not enough hard data [for me]. I guess my questions just got more and more fundamental as I went through the IB curriculum, and I wanted to get more kind of nitty gritty, so I switched in my third year to MCB.
Q: Did you take any neuroscience courses at Berkeley?
A: I did not, actually. I think that molecular biology was probably more inspired by my interests from my high school classes. [But] when I was at Berkeley, I went to the University of Washington for a summer and did an internship in a neuro lab there, and I did one at Tufts as well. I had always been interested in the brain, and I branched off more deliberately in that direction after undergrad.
Q: I saw that you worked as a research assistant in a neuroscience lab after you graduated.
A: Yeah, mostly I was with Al LaSpada. He’s now, I believe, at Duke. He studies neurodegeneration. I did a lot of microscopy in his lab, some molecular biology, some fly work. I [had also] worked in a biochem lab at Berkeley, in the chemistry department actually, with Judith Klinman.
Q: Were you doing art when you were an undergrad?
A: I actually was studying music at Berkeley; that was my minor, ethnomusicology. I’d been a musician my whole life and that had always been my artistic output, which was always just essential to my sanity. It was nice to have some kind of creative outlet to contrast the difficulty and lack of clarity, oftentimes, in biological experiments. There’s just so many variables, it’s hard to really drill down on an answer that you’re 100% convinced is correct. So it was nice to go home at the end of the day and be able to put some effort into something and have a tangible object, as opposed to just mixing one clear liquid with another clear liquid, and putting it in a machine. It’s just very existential; molecular bio can be that way.
Q: What made you go on to do a PhD in neuroscience?
A: I’ve always been interested in a lot of different things. And in having a difficult time choosing what I wanted to do, [I thought that] the brain is really at the fundamental foundation of everything that we do as humans. It’s really kind of the epicenter of what’s interesting about biology and psychology and philosophy, and these types of diverse fields that I’m interested in. So it made sense to devote a career to neuroscience. I don’t think you’d ever really be bored. The brain is, as many have said before me, likely the most complex object in the known universe, and there’s plenty of stuff to know about it and study about it.
Q: You did your PhD at the University of Pennsylvania — what was your research on?
A: I studied the epigenetics of feeding behaviors; at least that’s theoretically what I started doing. I was looking at the epigenetic regulation of feeding circuits in the hypothalamus, and how pregnant mice eating a high-fat diet would pass traits onto their offspring, and how that would pass through further generations. We found a little bit of promising data which had me switch my focus to the germline. I was studying transmission through the male germline in the last few years of my PhD, so I really had very little to do with the brain, actually, from a hardcore research standpoint by the end of my doctorate work.
Q: You started doing your neuroscience art during grad school, right? What brought you to do that?
A: Yeah, that’s right, like the first year or so. I think it was probably inspired equally by my work in Dr. LaSpada’s lab doing a lot of microscopy, but then just looking at gorgeous pictures of neurons and slices of the brain, that sort of thing, in graduate school every day. It’s just very inspiring.
I immediately made connections between the world of neurons and the world of natural themes which are more commonly created in Asian art, where you have these randomly branching structures that are oftentimes painted on sparse canvases in like a Zen style or the classical Japanese, Chinese, Korean traditions. So I saw an opportunity to start to paint the brain in a way that people could appreciate and not really know what they were looking at initially, and then make the connection that the microscopic world really resembles the natural world, and that nature solves complex problems through fractal-like designs. Those are some of the initial concepts that I was working with and continue to [work with].
I had switched my artistic focus from music to visual art. Because as I got busier — I was getting married and things like [that] — I realized that if I were to continue with an artistic practice on the side, I probably needed to make a little bit of money doing it. Music is just not the way to do that, at this point. With the internet, recorded music has become essentially valueless, or at least far less value than it used to be, or probably should be. And I’m not the kind of guy who’s going to go on international tours or anything like that. I had some graphic design experience working on record covers, things like that, so I decided to give visual art a crack. So I’m relatively new to it; I haven’t been practicing it since I was a little kid or anything. But I’ve always had some kind of artistic practice.
Q: How was that transition for you? You were training to be a scientist, and then you started doing art on the side. When did you realize that this could be a career for you?
A: As I was painting in the first few years of grad school, I got a really good reaction to the work, and I became much better known for my artwork than I did for my research. I was realizing I was decent in the lab, but I didn’t think I was doing anything so breakthrough that others wouldn’t have been able to do that kind of work. Whereas I saw the intersection of my interests and how it manifested in my representations of the brain artistically as being a much more personally relevant project, and also one where I felt like I could contribute more to society at large — to make beautiful images of the brain that the average non-professional could absorb and choose to appreciate. I think a lot of people are really intimidated [by the brain], and I saw having accessible images as a way to get people interested in it, particularly kids. So that’s what drew me to it.
Then a turning point in my career was when I got a big commission to do a large gold leaf painting for the lobby of the Society for Neuroscience — their headquarters in Washington. Basically, they paid me to put a giant billboard in the middle of the best location in the universe. So a lot of people started to learn about it then, and one thing led to another. I opened up a little web shop and started selling prints. By the time I was finishing my PhD, my wife, who is also an artist, convinced me [by saying,] ‘Why don’t you give this a shot? It seems like it’s going pretty well.’
It was definitely a time of high anxiety. Society at large oftentimes tells people, ‘It’s probably better to not be an artist. Instead of being an artist, maybe you should get a PhD.’ And I went the opposite way from that. Not being certain if I would be able to do it, not being certain if I’d be able to support a family doing it — that kind of thing made me a little bit nervous.
But I had the opportunity to be setting this career up as I was in grad school, which was really, really nice. I had my grad school career, I had a steady income, and I had a horizon — I knew when the end of grad school was coming, give or take a few months. I was able to set up a bunch of commissions and set up a plan a year or two ahead of time so that when I finished grad school, I would be able to hit the ground running with some commissions and some other work that I had lined up.
I guess the transition was similar to some lessons I’d learned in the lab, which is that it’s always a good idea to have kind of rote, relatively more simple, step-by-step types of experiments that are generating data at a steady pace, in addition to your more high-risk, high-payoff type experiments that are happening in parallel. That’s how I try to do my art as well. I’ll have things that I know are going to be interesting to me that are themes that people like, because that’s also something that’s really important. If you’re making a living as an artist, you have to take that kind of thing into consideration. And then to be able to do my own kinds of projects, the ones that interest me a little bit more, and see how they fly with my audience. That’s been an interesting journey, and there’s been twists and turns along the way in that regard.
Q: Are there other ways that you feel your scientific training feeds into your art?
A: Absolutely. Knowing how to compose experiments is incredibly important. Being in a lab really gives you the ability to train your instincts as to what is a promising line of inquiry and what is not. Much like in the lab, with art, you can learn pretty quickly when you’re developing a new technique for example, what’s going to bear fruit and what isn’t. And oftentimes, it’s the things that you don’t follow up on which end up being the ones that give you success, just because you’re not wasting your time on a bunch of crap that’s not going to pay off or produce anything interesting. That’s really important. [Also,] the ability to organize your thoughts, to be able to come up with an idea and execute it, and an understanding of chemistry and materials.
Understanding what materials you’re using and how they function is incredibly important. I developed this technique called reflective microetching with my buddy Brian [Edwards], who’s an applied physicist at Penn. There’s a lot of optics, there’s computer science, there’s physics, and there’s microfabrication-type work, which is all pretty technically demanding. Without the deeper understanding of science that I had gotten in grad school and undergrad, I don’t think I’d be able to pull that kind of thing off. I think that it gives me the ability to do some types of things that I think people without that training would have a pretty hard time doing. So I’m really grateful for that training.
I definitely keep one foot in the lab; I keep my ear to the ground research-wise. I’m not in a wet lab doing neuroscience research or anything like that anymore. But when I’m working on certain types of neuroscience pieces, I’m really trying to be very cognizant of what’s missing in the data — like what are the visualizations that don’t exist out there that would be really helpful for people to be able to see.
For example, I just spent three months on a piece about the spinal cord that I’m going to be releasing later this year, because I’ve never seen very detailed schematics of what the circuitry looks like and what the flow of information looks like. This technique that I mentioned, microetching, is an opportunity to make short animations of neural activity through light reflecting off these microengraved surfaces. It’s an opportunity for people to stand right in front of a physical object and absorb the complexity of the brain and have that sink in emotionally. I think that’s how people learn the most effectively — when their emotions are touched.
Q: Do you collaborate with scientists, with neuroscientists?
A: Yeah. Mostly with my collaborator, Brian, who is more of an engineer than a neuroscientist. But for some projects, I definitely do like to speak to neuroscientists who specialize in specific areas. For this huge piece [Self Reflected] that he and I did in 2014-16, which is a National Science Foundation funded piece, we consulted with 20-30 neuroscientists on all different regions of the brain so that we could get a lot of the details correct. The point of that piece was to be the most complex visualization of the brain that had been created, at least from an artistic standpoint. I’m pretty certain that it still stands as that to this day.
So we wanted to get it really accurate. We wanted kids and random folks coming into the museum — because it’s hanging in the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia — to be able to see it and to be able to get something basic out of it. If it’s nothing more than, ‘Wow, the brain is extremely complicated’, that’s a win. But we also wanted professionals to be able to look at it and not only see its accuracy, but to be able to get a broader perspective. Because as scientists, it’s very easy to get caught up in your one tiny little niche and forget the bigger picture. That’s particularly true in neuroscience, and that’s particularly true for people who are studying single cell work or molecular composition.
My work kind of spans a wide variety from more abstract, to more highly realistic and detailed.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: What Brian and I have been working on for the last few years is to create another large version of Self Reflected. Our goal with that piece was to change the way in which the average person thinks about the brain. We had tried to finish this up years ago and because of COVID, a whole bunch of stuff happened. A lot of delays happened. Right now, I’m driving gigantic sheets of acrylic that’ll be the glazing on the piece, back from Chicago. I moved to Bulgaria in the meantime.
Q: Looking back at your time at Berkeley, were there any experiences that shaped or influenced what you’re doing now?
A: Certainly the diversity of my education at Berkeley ended up giving me the ability to do something that’s so cross-disciplinary. I would kind of extend a lot of the same things that I’ve already said about my scientific training for my musical training, a lot of which I got at Berkeley. I took a bunch of classes in harmony, composition, international music, things like that. And it just broadens your thinking — it helps you to find connections between things that you might not have really thought about otherwise. There’s a real strength to breadth in education, which helps people to find their own niche a little bit better.
A lot of Nobel Prize winning scientists have had artistic practices, play an instrument, something like that. Something that just gets their mode of thinking out of its habitual way of processing information. So I’m grateful for that at Berkeley, the ability to do that. I took a lot of different types of classes there.
[Also], the quality of the labs that I had at Berkeley, like in my molecular biology classes, really helped to solidify my interest in molecular biology and inspired me to continue along the neuroscience path. If I hadn’t done those things, then I wouldn’t have been able to go to school for neuro, and then triangulate my career after that.
Q: Do you have any advice for graduate students in neuroscience who are doing art on the side, whether they want to pursue that as a career or not?
A: A lot depends on whether or not somebody wants to do it professionally or if it’s more of a creative outlet. You can have hybrids of those two things as well, of course. When you do something professionally as your sole source of income, no matter what it is, it always changes the equation. So that’s something to really consider.
Art is a wonderful outlet. There’s nothing like being inspired with a project and being able to spend time doing it. I think that having an artistic practice is extremely important and valuable.
For people who are trying to refine their voice as an artist: it takes years of making art before you really figure out who you are and what your point of view is. I don’t think that’s restricted to art; I think that’s true of science as well. Being creative in any field, I think it’s really important — in order to hone down what it is that your interests are and what your unique point of view is — to make a Venn diagram of your interests.
For me, I’m interested in Asian arts; I’m interested in gold leaf; I really like the brain; I really like making things that people find interesting. The more interests that you add to this Venn diagram, the narrower that intersection of those things is. Because there are a lot of people who are interested in Asian art, there are a lot of people who are interested in the brain, [but] there are many fewer people who are interested in the combination of all of those things. So it helps define what your unique position is, which will make you happier— being able to figure out how you can satisfy all of those interests. And it’ll make you more competitive in whatever field you end up going into. As I mentioned, I think that’s really important to see in scientists as well — figuring out how you can be contributing in a unique way.
Particularly in neuroscience, there are so many different applications for neuroscience and for the knowledge that you can gain from that field. We’re in the golden age of neuroscience, so bite off a chunk, do something ambitious. You’re at the beginning, really, of a field that is going to occupy humanity for a very long time.
- More information about Greg Dunn’s art, including the pieces shown here, can be found on his website.
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