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Transforming complex science into art

by  /  8 August 2017

I studied epigenetic transmission of feeding behavior in generations of mice to earn my Ph.D. I always thought I would travel along the academic path. But then, when I was a couple of years into graduate school, I decided that research wasn’t for me. I saw so many principal investigators burdened by the bureaucracy and the pressure of writing grants. I didn’t want that.

I started to develop a career as a painter when I was in graduate school — I have always had an artistic bent, first as a musician and then as a visual artist. I was interested in both neuroscience and painting, and so I combined the two. My research training helped me to think about the brain in a more global way. It helped me to invent some of the techniques required to do this kind of art, and it gave me a perspective that other artists don’t have.

Self Reflected – A First Look from Will Drinker on Vimeo.

It is hard to boil down incredibly complex subject matter into something that is simple and easily digestible. You have to show it as complex as it really is. My art serves to introduce people to how truly complex the brain is.

Before leaving science, I had to think very hard about how to make a living from art before I took the plunge. You need to be practical about it.

The people I was training with in the lab helped me get my first commissions from other scientists who were interested in my artwork. In terms of how to run a business, though, I was completely on my own. By the time I finished my Ph.D., I had the art career mostly formed and ready to go. I had won some commissions by that point, so that when I finished my degree, I could hit the ground running.

When I first started putting out these paintings, I received an extremely positive response from the people I showed them to. The Society for Neuroscience in Washington, D.C., paid me to create a huge painting of the brain in gold leaf on a billboard, and commissioned some notecards that they spread around at meetings. The cards helped to get the word out about my work. I started to receive commissions from universities and individuals.

This isn’t for everybody; there are some true geniuses working at the bench, and that is absolutely what they should be doing. But in my case, I felt I could contribute best by using art to show people things they didn’t know about the brain.

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