The Art of Science: Grad Student Finds Inspiration in Images of the Brain

Jan. 16, 2018

Stowell Brain Painting

The complex biology, networks, and symphony of signals that underlie human cognition are a font of endless mystery and wonder to those who study it.  For Rianne Stowell, a graduate student in the lab of URMC neuroscientist Ania Majewska, Ph.D., these questions are also a source of artistic inspiration which has led to the creation of striking paintings of the brain’s inner workings.

Stowell’s most recent creation (above) is based on research which has recently been published in the journal Developmental Neurobiology and sheds new light on the role that immune cells called microglia play in wiring and rewiring the connections between nerve cells.

Stowell recalls wanting to pursue a career in art as far back as elementary school in Pennsylvania and while she carried that desire with her to Moravian College, she also began to explore other academic fields. Her interest in biology and psychology attracted her to a degree in neuroscience and that decision ultimately led her to the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, where she is in now in her fourth year of graduate studies in pursuit of her Ph.D. in neuroscience.

Rianne StowellThe subject of her thesis is the signaling systems employed by neurons and microglia in the parts of the brain that process visual input.  While the connections between the eyes and the visual part of the brain are established early in development, they can be altered later in life which can, in turn, rewire how the eyes communicate with the brain. Uncovering the precise mechanics of this process – which is the focus of Stowell’s research – can help scientists better understand the general principals of brain plasticity. ​

The new study builds upon previous work by Majewska and her colleagues which demonstrates that microglia, which have long been thought to solely function as the immune cells of the brain, play critical roles in sculpting the connections between neurons during processes such as learning and memory.

Stowell helped developed the surgical method that enabled the researchers to capture images deep inside the living brains of mice using a technology called two-photon microscopy.  They found that microglia in the cerebellum – a part of the brain critical for our sense of balance, motor control, as well as some forms of learning – look, act, and function differently than microglia in other parts of the brain.  These findings suggest that microglia adopt different functions as they colonize different parts of the brain.

During the project, Stowell spent a great deal of time studying the images generated by the two-photon microscope and shapes and color contrasts of the red neurons and green microglia were the motivation that led her to put paint to canvas.  When not in the lab, Stowell continues to pursue her passion for art and hopes to soon build up enough work to participate in one of Rochester’s art festivals.  

For more of her creations, inspired by science or otherwise, visit Stowell’s Instagram page