Portraits of the Brain: Teaching Students About Neuroanatomy

Art and science come together in unique textbook project supported by Lehigh Humanities Lab.

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

Photography by

Christa Neu

Videography by

Stephanie Veto

How do you create an illustration of the brain that is visually appealing as well as effective in teaching students about neuroanatomy, the study of the brain’s organization?

Sarrah Hussain ’21 and post-baccalaureate student Viola Yu '21 were put to the task this summer as they created medical illustrations for online, open-access textbook chapters conceived by Jennifer Swann, professor of biological sciences at Lehigh. Swann collaborated with visiting art, architecture and design assistant professor Deirdre Murphy in mentoring the students, who were awarded fellowships from the Lehigh Humanities Lab to work on what became known as the brain visualization project.

“When you're doing a textbook, you really need illustrations to help people understand what the work is that you're
referring to,” said Swann.

“[It’s] that picture-is-a-thousand words kind of thing, where, if I describe the phenomenon to you, you get bored halfway through this three-paragraph description, but if I show you the picture, you’re with me, and then you can ask me questions.”

The student illustrators, who worked with sheep brains to better understand and conceptualize the brain, created hundreds of watercolors, cresyl stainings, digital art and ink drawings as well as animations for use in the online chapters.

“They really learned how to synthesize the fine art, visual language with the scientific language to then make really compelling images and animations,” Murphy said.

Post-baccalaureate student Viola Yu '21, left, and Sarrah Hussain ’21

Post-baccalaureate student Viola Yu '21, left, and Sarrah Hussain ’21 created hundreds of watercolors, cresyl stainings, digital art and ink drawings as well as animations for use in the online chapters.

The illustrated textbook chapters have their origins in a course that Swann teaches on the brain and behavior. Concerned in part by the high costs of textbooks, Swann was interested in creating chapter materials that would be available for use through an open-access network. More significantly, Swann said the textbook chapters were a teaching and learning technique, in which a core group of students extensively researched and wrote the chapters as they explored their areas of interest in neuroanatomy.

Jennifer Swann, professor of biological sciences at Lehigh

Jennifer Swann, professor of biological sciences at Lehigh, conceived the online, open-access textbook chapters.

“I believe that students learn what they're interested in learning,” Swann said. “If you force something on them, they will fight with it. But if you capture their interest, they lead you. That's always my goal. I have kind of a selfish goal in classes, which is, I want to learn as much as the students do, and so, to generate classes where I know a little bit of the material and I'm going to actually challenge myself to learn the rest of it along with the class. It's so much more fun that way, because we're all learning together. And when I can add my expertise, I do.”The book chapters explore “Circadian Rhythms,” “Parenting” and “Neuroanatomy of Dreams: Physiological Pathways and Psychological Understanding.”

While Swann recognized the need for art to help convey the concepts, she said she had problems finding suitable art, in part because of copyright rules and regulations.

Enter Lehigh’s Humanities Lab, which works to integrate the humanities across disciplines and create points of convergence among fields of study. Swann was already collaborating with Postdoctoral Research Associate Amanda Greene in teaching a course on Social Immunity, which provided a holistic view of the immune system as a biological and social phenomenon.

Visiting art, architecture and design assistant professor Deirdre Murphy

Visiting art, architecture and design assistant professor Deirdre Murphy helped mentor the students, who were awarded fellowships from the Lehigh Humanities Lab.

While in the midst of teaching the course in the spring 2020 semester, discussions ensued about future projects. Greene connected Swann and Murphy, an artist and educator whose interests lie in the interconnected qualities of art and science, for a potential collaboration.

Talking with Swann over coffee at the Lit Roastery in Bethlehem, Pa., Murphy said she knew  immediately that she wanted to work with Swann on the project. And, she knew who to recommend to conceptualize the structure and function of the mammalian nervous system: two students in her advanced studio class, Sarrah Hussain and Viola Yu. Both aspiring medical illustrators, the students were already working on their portfolios.

Visualizing the Brain

Hussain, who is pursuing a double major in behavioral neuroscience and fine art at Lehigh, said she had initially envisioned a career as a doctor or researcher. But, she said, she also always had a passion for the arts. The brain visualization project helped bring her future into focus.

“This is the first time that I've ever had a job experience where it's a direct lens into my future, of, wow, I can see myself doing this,” Hussain said. “This is exactly the kind of work that I want to be doing for other people … where I can be the bridge between a scientist and their audience and create content that explains or transforms it into something that everyone can see and view and take from.”

Hussain’s previous professional experience in bioinformatics includes working as an undergraduate researcher for the Babcock Lab at Lehigh. Through discovering a new gene and studying mechanisms of neuromuscular degeneration in D. melanogaster, she said she worked directly on extracting thoracic motor neurons via microsurgery and flight data collection, as well as illustrating the figures for a paper currently under publication review.

Hussain said her dual major has been critical in developing the skills she needed to create the brain illustrations. She has expertise in the sciences—anatomy, biology, medicine—but also knows the principles of design, color theory, accuracy and precision, and drawing.

“It's really hard to be the middleman when you have uneven skill sets in either field,” Hussain said. “So the biggest advantage for me was completely and totally understanding the concept that was being explained in the chapter, because I've studied that, … and then also being able to see it from the lens of an artist and saying, how can I transform these words and paragraphs into a visual that can be understood by students or customers, patients, whoever the audience may be, or even just for communication between professionals.”

They really learned how to synthesize the fine art, visual language with the scientific language to then make really compelling images and animations.

Deirdre Murphy, visiting art, architecture and design assistant professor

Yu, who graduated in 2018 from Cornell University, majored in environmental science and sustainability with a concentration in environmental biology and applied ecology. Her minor was horticulture with a focus in botanical arts. Before coming to Lehigh for post-baccalaureate classes, she worked as a research specialist at Princeton University, where she helped run the ecology and evolutionary biology department’s undergraduate teaching labs.

“My favorite part of everything was just drawing the things that I was researching,” she said. Over time, Yu said, she came to realize that her “dream job” would allow her to combine her passion for both biological sciences and the arts.

Yu said her creative processes emulate that of a scientist’s, in that she extensively plans and calculates what she will do. While some artists analyze and adapt as they create, she said she enjoys taking her time to draft, build layers and fully understand a subject or composition before committing to any particular placement or contour. She said she loves to experiment in a variety of mediums, including colored pencil, oil, watercolor and digital art.

How the Process Worked

Swann sent three sheep brains, fixed in a preservative, to the illustrators for reference and dissection as they created the drawings.

“We did have the students draw from direct observation—just draw the sheep brain, just hold it in your hand, look at it, turn it around, draw it; slice it, draw it; pull it apart and draw it, and just respond to it, no judgment, just observe it as you would as a naturalist scientist,” said Murphy.

With the team working remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Swann met with the illustrators over Zoom several times a week to discuss the brain and scientific topics in depth, as well as how best to translate the concepts into images. Murphy joined the lectures initially, then received the recorded lectures and readings as she continued with her other research. On Fridays, Murphy met remotely with the illustrators to critique the work they had produced.

Sarrah Hussain shows her illustrations

Sarrah Hussain '21 said she came to realize that illustrators can help scientists and artists to better understand each other’s processes and the amount of work that goes into what they each do.

“I asked them to explain to me in a nutshell: what [are you] trying to get across,” Murphy said. “I would ask them why the choice of colors, why the choice of medium that they used, whether it was a digital animation or a watercolor. And they were able to really be very articulate about their choices and were very open to constructive criticism [to] really improve those drawings for that next week. They really learned how to hone their craft very quickly.”

Murphy also led PowerPoint presentations of artists’ works and brought in visiting artists for lectures and critiques, including Philadelphia-based artists: sculptor Rebecca Kamen, who has worked with the National Institutes of Health; installation artist Caroline Lathan-Stiefel and printmaker Shelley Thortensen.

In critiquing the students’ work, Murphy expressed how she was interpreting their drawings and animations. “I would tell them, well, this is what I'm thinking about when I'm reading this line going through in this pathway. It's making me think you want me to follow the information in this kind of pattern or direction.” She also discussed the thickness of lines and how the moving of forms through a picture plane can help viewers to understand the processes being described.

“You have to be able to adapt and adjust and know that [the art] is not just something that looks good,” said Yu, “but something that's accurate, that a scientist can [use and say], ‘that is an educational tool. Not only is it beautiful but I can teach my students off this.’ … The harder part was making sure everything was really accurate.”

Yu said she was inspired by the science in “a very surprising way” to create the art. She said the team’s energy level was very high, mainly because Swann and Murphy are both so passionate about what they do—Swann in conveying information about neuroscience, and Murphy in communicating about art.

“When they come together, how could we not do great work?” said Yu. “It’s great to have both there as a resource. If we missed one, I think this project would have been a failure. We really needed both [professors].”

Hussain said she came to realize that illustrators can help scientists and artists to better understand each other’s processes and the amount of work that goes into what they each do.

“There's a science to the science, there's an art to the science,” said Hussain. “And then there's art to the art and science to the art.”

Yu said she and Hussain appreciated the remote internship, especially during the pandemic. “You had plans, it's not happening. I had a job lined up, not happening,” said Yu. “We were just so inspired and so motivated to have something that looked great [in] the outcome. So I think, weirdly enough, the one silver lining to the quarantine is that we had so much time and we could put so much effort into this.”

Swann and Murphy are hoping the project leads to future collaborations between the disciplines, including a possible new minor in medical illustration. Also Hussain’s and Yu’s drawings, paintings and animations for textbook application are on virtual exhibit in Portraits of the Brain: Visualizing Behavior, held in conjunction with Lehigh University Art Galleries’ exhibition, “Well, Well, Well: Picturing Wellness from the LUAG Collection.” In addition to Hussain’s and Yu’s work, the exhibit includes the work of Kamen, Lathan-Stiefel and Thortensen. To view the exhibition, go to wordpress.lehigh.edu/portraits-of-the-brain.  

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

Photography by

Christa Neu

Videography by

Stephanie Veto

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