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Dana Simmons holds a Ph.D. in Neurobiology from The University of Chicago, where she researches Autism Spectrum Disorder and its connection to the cerebellum. In the cerebellum, Dana focuses a neural circuit that centers around Purkinje neurons. Dana's research goal is to investigate how this neural circuitry develops and functions differently in autistic vs. non-autistic brains.
While performing experiments in the lab, Dana became inspired by the highly branched structure of Purkinje neurons. Notably, these neurons look like microscopic trees. By filling single neurons with fluorescent dyes and using a microscope to capture highly magnified images, Dana creates digital art that represents the tiny trees of the brain.
My main source of inspiration for my neuron art images is the structure of the cerebellum. The cerebellum is one of the most organized regions of the brain. The neurons match up with great precision, leading to beautiful structural patterns not seen anywhere else in the brain. In the cerebellum, Purkinje neurons combine input from the rest of the brain to help us with balance, posture, and learning new movements. Purkinje neurons resemble tiny trees in their shape. Interestingly, we can see this tree-like shape all throughout nature - both large and small. I coined the term "Purkinje Pattern" to describe these structures, which can also be observed in trees, lightning, antlers, coral, decision-making networks, Lichtenberg figures, bacterial colonies, blood vessel networks, and veins in leaves.
My goal with my neuron is to explore patterns in nature and to speculate about why certain patterns form over and over again. I aim to create striking visual images of Purkinje neurons so that people will see them and ask, "What is that? What does it do? Why does it matter?" My goal is to use my science-art to promote curiosity about science and the natural world.
Another source of inspiration for my neuron art is Andy Warhol's pop art. Warhol famously showed the beauty of everyday objects such as shoes and soup cans by displaying them in multiples and varying the color scheme. For me, neurons in brain slices are everyday objects. I alter the colors of each image to create several versions, and when I show my art, I line up multiple versions of the same image to create an effect similar to that see in Warhol's "Marilyn Diptych."