The yearbook of the brain

If ever there was a prom for neuroscientists, SfN is surely it. Every year, the Society for Neuroscience meeting attracts some 30,000 researchers, students and journalists to vast exhibit halls with promises of groundbreaking scientific results and overpriced food. Any decent prom needs a yearbook, of course, and this year Interstellate delivered. The brain child — pardon the pun — of MIT graduate student Caitlin Vander Weele, Interstellate isn’t a yearbook in the traditional sense, and it wasn’t even originally designed to be printed, but the chronicle became the meeting’s hottest souvenir and the toast of the neuroscience twitterati.

Search for #SciArt on any social media platform and you’ll be deluged with technicolor images of cells and intricate illustrations of flora and fauna. “Stunning images are such effective communication tools because they draw people in and get them asking questions,” says Vander Weele. Already a prolific tweeter, earlier this year she and other scientists started sharing research images, mostly microscopy, that “received a lot of attention from both fellow scientists and non-scientists.” At the urging of the project’s fans, Vander Weele compiled Interstellate’s tweets into a blog, which then morphed into a coffee table book. In just six months, a “yearbook committee” consisting of nearly 60 scientists from nine countries contributed images and text and Vander Weele snagged a number of sponsors to cover printing costs. Each page of Interstellate is laid out like an eye-catching magazine cover, and the more than 70 scientific captions accompanying the vivid snapshots of the brain were woven into a coherent narrative by Vander Weele and a small team of writers.

The collection of tweets transformed into “a collection of thoughts”, but Interstellate first began as a stress-relief effort. A self-professed workaholic, Vander Weele says curating Interstellate was a chance to take a few hours away from the lab bench each week. “It has been a valuable creative outlet for me during a difficult period in the PhD, but because it was science-related, it also felt productive,” she says. The project has netted her other benefits too: global connections to dozens of neuroscientists and a creativity boost for her research. For any naysayers who think time spent away from research is wasted, Vander Weele points to the support of her boss, MIT assistant professor Kay Tye. “Kay very much values her trainees’ extracurricular activities — realizing that they create happier and healthier scientists,” says Vander Weele. “She actually helped walk me through fundraising for the project and also sponsored some of the free copies that were available at SfN in November.”

Image: Christine Liu

Interstellate wasn’t alone as an artsy offering at SfN. The “Art of Neuroscience” booths have become a staple at the meeting, and one of the exhibitors had a distinctly DIY approach to her wares. Christine Liu makes zines — hand-drawn, hand-assembled, low-circulation pamphlets—that combine science and art, as well as nerdy pins and jewelry. Liu is a self-taught artist and UC Berkeley PhD student who also designed the Interstellate Twitter logo. Her approach to chronicling neuroscience is quick-and-dirty to Interstellate’s gloss, but the results are equally beautiful and compelling. The Neuro Retreat zine, pictured, opens up the research being done at Berkeley labs and was conceived and produced during one weekend at the department’s retreat. Another production Liu has spearheaded is the Neuroscientist Portrait Project, an exploration of diverse voices in the sciences. “Not only is it important for scientists to appreciate the differences among us,” she says, “but also for the next generation to see people they can relate to who are succeeding in science.”

Liu’s booth at SfN featured a zine library, which she hoped would “inspire fellow scientists to explore how they can express their science creatively and how there are no rules for making art and communicating science. I wanted to show people that crude drawings and cute pins can be a valid form of science communication as long as it is done authentically.” Indeed, Liu thinks that authenticity combined with these homespun forms of science communication may be just the ticket to humanize science in a ‘post-truth’ era: “In a time where there is mistrust of scientists and rampant misinformation, it is increasingly important for scientists to become more approachable.”

Whether it’s the slick pages of Interstellate or the raw ragged edges of zines, Vander Weele’s and Liu’s works are part of an online tide of ‘science celebration’, creating awareness and engagement through art. The brain is particularly suited, it seems, not just because we all have one but because “the brain is inherently beautiful,” says Vander Weele. She thinks the grassroots approach that formed Interstellate makes it accessible to students and principal investigators alike. “I do hope that Interstellate encourages other students to take that leap of faith and start their own science communication projects.” She would also love to see the magazine expanded for public outreach efforts, and is looking into funding a version for middle and high school students.

Vander Weele also thinks Interstellate can be a valuable tool for creating perspective amongst scientists themselves. Some images in Interstellate came from ‘failed’ experiments; they are therefore of little scientific value and will likely never be published. “I know scientists who have terabytes on terabytes of unshared images and it is really a shame that they won’t be used for anything,” she says. “I think Interstellate provides a platform to celebrate these important but often overlooked steps of research.” Failure, after all, is a crucial part of the scientific process, helping to advance hypotheses and methods.

As for the fine print, Vander Weele urges caution. “The images in Interstellate are data and I can understand why sharing them would make some scientists uncomfortable — perhaps from fears of being scooped.” Before printing the magazine and publishing the digital copy online, she contacted everyone who submitted an image to verify that they had the appropriate permissions and that everyone involved was credited. The logistics of funding and printing were “not so fun”, says Vander Weele, “and I had to make decisions about paperweight and gloss finishes for the hard copies, which I knew nothing about. I had to learn a lot in a very short period of time!”

What started as a tweet thus became a global reality, with contributions from Australia, South Korea and beyond, buoyed by the openness and sharing being embraced by a younger, tech-savvy generation of scientists (“They have a more liberal view on data sharing, which helped facilitate Interstellate,” says Vander Weele). She is looking into producing one more volume before handing over the reins — “I’d love to continue to be involved in the project at a higher level, but Interstellate has wonderful opportunities that I’m happy to share”— as she embarks on a postdoc at the University of Calgary within the next year. And whether you call it art or data, “I definitely think that there is scientific value in Interstellate. I hope that these images spark conversations and foster collaborations between scientists.” Adds Liu: “There are endless ways to communicate science, but the most effective are ways that are authentic.”