Beauty and the brain merge in art exhibit

Vivian Budnik interprets neurologic structures in pen and ink

By Sandra Gray

UMass Medical School Communications

September 06, 2012
Gracing the cover of the February 2011 issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience was this drawing, Vivian Budnik’s artistic interpretation of octopamine regulation of behavioral plasticity in fruit flies. The image is among those on display in "Brainscapes" at the Lamar Soutter Library.

Through drawings in ink and works in other media, neuroscientist Vivian Budnik, PhD, portrays the beauty of the microscopic structures of the brain that she studies as professor and vice chair of neurobiology. A selection of Dr. Budnik’s drawings comprises the next Artist in Residence exhibit at the Medical School’s Lamar Soutter Library. “Brainscapes” opens Monday, Sept. 10, and will be on display through Oct. 29.


Reflecting on how her artistic and scientific talents intersected, Budnik wrote in her artist’s statement, “The attraction was not only to inquiry and discovery, but also to the aesthetics of living things, particularly of neurons.”

While a post-doc, Budnik was inspired by the crisp linear styles of native South and North American art. She etched her first drawings on porcelain vessels, then began drawing in a similar incised style with ink on paper during a long trip when clay was not available.

Mixing fantasy with biological process, Budnik also draws inspiration from the life and work of Spanish physician Santiago Ramon y Cajal, who in 1906 won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his pioneering investigations of the microscopic structure of the brain. Considered by many to be the father of modern neuroscience, Ramon y Cajal was skilled at drawing, and hundreds of his illustrations of brain cells are still used for educational purposes a hundred years later.

Budnik had artistic inclinations as far back as her childhood in Chile, but began her life’s work in neurobiology by studying biology as an undergraduate. She immigrated to the United States in 1984 to pursue graduate training in biophysics at Brandeis University. There, she wrote, “I developed a strong fascination with the power and beauty of invertebrate model systems, particularly with the use of genetics to address fundamental neurobiological questions.”

Upon completing postdoctoral training at the University of Iowa in 1988, Budnik established a laboratory at UMass Amherst. She was recruited to UMMS in 2003 to continue her investigations of the molecular and genetic mechanisms that allow synaptic connections in the nervous system to change, mechanisms that are at the core of processes such as learning and memory.

Budnik’s dual talents as scientist and artist are on display in prestigious scientific journals including Cell, Neuron, Journal of Neuroscience, and PLos Biology where, in addition to the numerous papers she has published, several of her drawings have been featured as covers or images.

An artist’s reception for “Brainscapes” will be held on Tuesday, Sept. 18, at 5 p.m. Light refreshments will be served at the reception, which is free and open to the public. Visit the Lamar Soutter Library website to learn more about the Artist in Residence Series.

Related links:

Research reveals novel RNA transport mechanism

Small brains lead to big ideas

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