Facts and Data

I am a scientist.  I live for data.  I love testing new hypotheses.  In any conversation, work related or not, I look for hard facts rather than impressions.  While this may serve me well in some instances, particularly in the lab, in other parts of my life it sometimes leads to some obsessive and neurotic tendencies.

A few years ago, while I was obsessing over spending enough time with my daughter, I came across a very useful self help book – “168 Hours” by Laura Vanderkam.   The book beautifully outlines how, with a little thought, you can find enough time for anything in your life.  It just takes a little habit of time tracking.

Tracking?  Data?  Numbers?  Sign me up!

For years I have been a closeted pedometer user until Fitbit came out and made step tracking trendy.  No surprises here – I wear my Fitbit like my life depends on it.  More on that later.  After reading the book, I eagerly started looking for an iPhone time management app.  By that time, I was already familiar with Stephen Covey’s principle of Rocks and Pebbles, but as a true INTJ, I was looking for further improvements.   After downloading the app, I began to track the way I spent my time, aiming for accuracy down to the minutes.  The data that came from this self experimentation was quite eye opening.  Here I will only share what it looked like over the last couple of months.  One thing I can say for certain is that it certainly helped with taming the “mother’s guilt”.

So here are my results from August.  It was a busy month.  We were getting ready to move into our new apartment, and there was a ton of errands to take care of.  Not much time for my own interests.


In her book, Laura Vanderkam writes about interviewing a very successful woman, who while running a multimillion dollar business, could not resist a going for muddy hike on a weekday morning.  Her formula was simple.  She focused on spending her time on nurturing three things:  herself, her family and her career.  I have tried living by this formula and some months are more successful than others.  In August, I clearly did not find much time to nurture myself.

As we were unpacking in our new place, September did not show much promise either.  But here is where the second bit of data comes in.  Remember the Fitbit?  Guess what?   Not surprisingly, this lack of balance was taking a toll on my mental state, and that came through in the steady rise of my basal heart rate.heart_rate

Notice the sharp fall around September 22nd?  That is when I made time for returning to NeuroBead, and working on my art into the night.

If there are any scientists reading this post, I realize that this is a pretty weak correlative study, with many other factors happening on a daily basis that could have skewed my results.  But to me it is solid evidence for the vital importance of art and creativity in my life.



via Daily Prompt: Test


The onion effect

The first time I went to San Francisco, I was probably about 17 years old. My parents and I decided to finally venture out to California for a family vacation. I was impatiently waiting to see the Fog City, after hearing so many great things about it. When we arrived, there was certainly no shortage of beautiful vistas and breathtaking panoramas. What did take us a bit by surprise though, was the unpredictable weather. Each day presented a challenge of rolling all four seasons into one. The mornings were freezing and the days were hot. We quickly learned to put on multiple layers of clothing if we wanted to spend whole days wandering around the city. The same story repeated when I went there years later with my husband.  Looking back now, I feels like I have been wearing layers all my life, only a different type of layers.  What I call the onion effect.

Growing up in a Russian family often means that there is a big emphasis on your appearance. My mom always prided herself on being the most fashionably dressed at any social event. For me, it was one of those things parents do that unintentionally leads to reverse psychology effects. As a child, I prided myself on not overemphasizing what seemed like shallow, superficial outer layers. I took “caring about what’s on the inside ” to the extreme. While it may not have served me particularly well in making many friends in school, it allowed me to develop a rich inner world that I expressed through art.

Relatively early on I began to feel that this inner world needed protection. I could not just let anyone in. I was much more interested in deep, meaningful friendships, rather than shallow acquaintances.  Unfortunately, the world seemed to be full of the latter.  I began to grow a hard outer layer, what I later referred to as my “shell”, that I used to protect the delicate balance inside from the daily elements.

Any person can probably equate themselves to an onion. We all have many layers we wear on the surface, but it takes time and effort to find out what is truly inside. The key is not to put on so many layers that we would forget about the inner true person ourselves.

As the years have passed, I began to slowly peel off some of my outer layers. It is still a work in progress. It has been a process of rediscovering my true self. And one of the key aspects was bringing the artist in me back to life.

Mental peace amidst chaos 

It has been more than three weeks since we’ve moved into the new apartment. The unpacking process is slow and tortured. A lot of things are still in boxes and difficult to find. One of the things that has been out in the open though, is my latest unfinished piece that I referred to in an earlier post.

Due to its fragile and delicate nature, we had to bring it as one of the last items we carried ourselves – not entrusting it to the movers. Since then, it has been lying out in the open and solemnly staring at me in the evenings, calling my name. Between my work, setting up our new place and getting our daughters set up for school and daycare, I have barely had an evening to myself. On top of that, despite my best intentions, there hasn’t been much progress with setting up my desk. It has fallen prey to all of the miscellaneous items we find in boxes that don’t quite have a defined location allotted in our new home yet.

I have written earlier about the multiple barriers that life can present. Some issues may be more trivial than others, but last night was one of those I usually dread the most. Despite being a mother for almost 7 years, I still get a shiver down my spine whenever I hear that my husband needs to work late or has to go out for dinner with his colleagues. My pulse quickens as I begin to imagine a chaotic evening unraveling. On top of my husband’s dinner out, my younger daughter was coming home from a weekend at grandparents’ place. That meant that I would have two kids on my hands along with all of the less than joyful activities involved in getting ready for a school week. I had no hope of time to myself.

The evening turned to go relatively smoothly, aside from that fact that my older daughter went to bed an hour later than expected. I came back to my bedroom exhausted and tense. I thought of curling up with a book and going to sleep soon… And then it hit me. I actually did have an evening to myself, albeit on the late side. So I unpacked all of my instruments and supplies and got to work; right on the bed for the lack of a better option.

And then something magical happened. I got in the state of “flow” as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I lost track of time. I lost track of my thoughts. I entered a zen like state. I restored inner peace. All by just threading beads on a wire and assembling the tiny, newly formed spines on a dendritic branch.

While I greatly enjoy the process of creating, I am also looking forward to finishing this neuron and posting it on NeuroBead!

Orange Pleasure 

Yesterday I stopped by to see my graduate school advisor.  When I arrived, he was in a meeting, so I spent some time sitting in the waiting area.  The office has changed over the years since I’ve left.  Some furniture was upgraded, and names on some office doors have changed.  People are forging their way forward, building their careers.  One of the things that did not change though is still taking the central stage in the office.  The so called “Orange Pleasure”.

I don’t know the details of how exactly this “pleasure” came about, but seeing it again has allowed for some very vivid memories to resurface.

I was a graduate student at the time.  Out of the blue, the whole lab was invited to a small reception at the office, with wine, cheese and crackers (any graduate student’s dream – oh, the low standards at the time).  While most of the people would have honestly preferred to stay in the lab and work, attendance to this event sounded borderline mandatory – we had to show our support.  At the reception, our professor graciously accepted the “Orange Pleasure” painting from an artist he met at an event.  He spoke of the gray existence of scientific life in the lab, and how we could all benefit from a splash of color in our life.  He spoke of the repetitive nature of lab work and how such a painting could fire up our imagination.  How given the abstract nature of the piece, each lab member would see what they want to see in it – signal transduction pathways spreading and rippling through the cells.  I remember standing there and thinking about how far fetched it all was from what we actually worked on.

More recently, there has been a push to redefine the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) field and make it STEAM again, with the letter A representing Art.  Last week, I attended the 198th Annual Meeting of the New York Academy of Sciences (also mentioned here), where I met Danelle Marqui Brown, the founder of By Mnemosyne.  The premise of By Mnemosyne is that the nine muses of the arts and sciences were once considered to be complementary to each other; but with time and technological progress they began to diverge.   Our conversation nostalgically revolved around classical examples like Leonardo da Vinci, who was an artist and a scientist in one.

When I was in college, my parents and I went on vacation to Fort Myers in Florida.  While my parents liked to sleep in, I would go to the beach in the morning.  On one such morning, an elderly man with a small dog was passing by and decided to strike up a conversation with me.  He asked me the classical questions of what I wanted to be when I grew up.  At that point, I already knew that I was interested in biological sciences with a potential inclination towards medicine.  One question he asked me, that stuck with me since that time, was whether specialization is beneficial or detrimental in the scientific community.  There are two sides to each coin.  There is so much knowledge coming out on a daily basis, that there is no option to try to learn everything; at the same time being able to see the big picture can be equally, if not more important.  Hence, the explosion of systems biology and bioinformatics approaches across scientific fields.

The same concept may apply to art and science.  While each lab tries to carve out a unique niche, more and more higher order scientific problems require cross-functional teams that could examine them from different angles.  Different people also have different learning styles.  Some people absorb knowledge through  reading, some through listening, some by doing.  Personally, I prefer visual depictions of information.  Figures and schematics make it much easier for me to grasp a complex concept.  For some people it may be art.

Finally, there has been a lot of discussion of making science accessible to the public.  Aside from industry, the vast majority of research is funded by the government, taxes and foundations, which means that the money comes from the general public.  However, once the grant is issued or the check is signed, most of the research  appears to happen behind an “iron curtain” of the scientific community.  To address this issue, disease foundations such as NMSS take on the mission of educating the public, and young scientists share their passion through channels such as The Story Collider.

At NeuroBead, I would also like to lift the curtain and reveal the beauty of science that we get to appreciate every day, and make it more publicly accessible.  Come check out my first pieces at my Etsy shop and let me know what you think.

The Art of Pixelation 

A few years ago I took my daughter to “The Art of the Brick” expo in New York City. At first, my husband and I were pretty skeptical about how interesting it would be. What could you possibly do with Legos that hasn’t been done before? We have been to the Legoland in Yonkers, where whole cities were built out of Legos, and the Toys R Us at Times Square, with its famous Lego Empire State Building.  
As you may imagine, we were completely dumbfounded once we saw The Art of the Brick. Nathan Sawaya has an amazing talent for portraying world famous paintings and sculptures by just using Legos. One of the things that really struck me was how little detail is necessary for a picture to come together. The Lego depictions of well known masterpieces looked like somebody took a highly pixelated photo of the painting, with just enough detail to make it recognizable.  

Here is an example of the “Girl with a Pearl Earring” painting made out of Legos to show what I mean.  

People have actually studied the lower limits of resolution necessary for objects to be recognized. When it comes to faces, especially familiar faces, the minimal resolution appears to be as low as 7 X 10 pixels as described in more detail here and here. Despite what would appear to be a very poor resolution, people are able to recognize what they know.  

The same principle applies to confocal microscopy. When you just start to look for an image of your sample, you are likely to start out with a relatively blurry image. As you continue to fine tune the settings, beautiful cellular structures begin to appear in bold, bright colors. You may increase your resolution for a publication quality image, but at the end of the day all images still consist of individual pixels, each of which carries important information for the whole image to be recognizable and informative for the scientist. Converting confocal images into 3D renderings made of beads allows me to capture this quality. Each bead acts like a pixel and is necessary for the whole object to come together and show its precise structure and identity.  Using very fine beads allows me to capture the image at a “high resolution” and makes it that much more pleasurable.

While I was composing this post, I attended a meeting at New York Academy of Sciences.  Not only did I run into a post board with my face and an excerpt from my interview on it… What caught my attention was actually much more subtle.  The wall paper in the lecture hall was showing images of birds that were gradually losing resolution, symbolizing how much scientific knowledge is still unknown.  The gradual transition of the images really struck a chord with me!

Come check out my work at NeuroBead and follow me on Instagram!

Image background 

In the majority of scientific techniques, the word “background” has a very negative connotation.  It usually implies that your detection method picked up something else besides the specific signal you were looking for.   People even go as far as calling their images “dirty”.   In microscopy, that non-specific “noise” usually appears in the form of either randomly scattered bright pixels, or as a general haze of autofluorescence all around your cells.  In contrast, high quality images usually have a very clean, black background, that when printed has a glossy feel to it.  To capture this quality, I use shiny black satin as the backdrop for NeuroBead renderings.  It gives the piece a clean and crisp look that allows the cells to really pop forward.

In my daily life there is also a lot of background noise.  I have two daughters who have an unlimited amount of energy.  It does not take much for them to put me out of focus and make me feel scatterbrained.  But when I find some time to sit down a make my artwork, I can zoom in with a laser like focus and find myself in a state of “flow” as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Last night, I was talking to someone on the phone, and the topic of NeuroBead came up.  The conversation suddenly took a sharp turn and a series of questions was fired at me.

“Why do you want/need to do this?”

“Don’t you have enough on your plate already?”

“As it is you barely find any free time.  How will you manage?” 

I think there is a logical order to these well-meaning questions.  First comes the “why” and if the reason is good enough, the “hows” will fall into place.  For me, it is because the creative process allows me to concentrate on my inner world and at least temporarily drown out the background noise.  It brings my life into focus.

Check out this growth cone here!

Different barriers, single drive

About three years ago, I was interviewing for my first job after postdoctoral fellowship. I was determined to “make the leap” into industry, and was thrilled when I found out about the existence of a neuroscience-focused biotech company within a reasonable distance from where I lived. The interview process was long and thorough, making it seem like I was being interviewed for a job at the CIA. When I was finally invited for an on site visit, as a part of my interview the hiring manager gave me a tour of the lab. At that time, the lab had just acquired its first confocal microscope, which was located in a small room at the end of the lab. I still recall how the hiring manager said that my eyes “lit up” when I first heard that they had one. Over the years that followed, I ended up using it quite frequently with some down periods in between. I think my heart still skips a beat every time I pass by that room. In the following posts I will be sharing some of the images I have acquired, that inspired me to start NeuroBead.

On the note of sharing images…  In the three years that I have spent working at a biotech company, I have come across a lot of “red tape” situations.  It is amazing how thorough the review process needs to be for even a summer student to show data from a half baked study performed over a couple months, all while learning the ropes in the lab.  Thankfully, in art images can speak for themselves and do not require detailed figure legends.

On the home front, it has been a week and a half since we moved to the new apartment. The renovations are finally (almost) done and theoretically we can fully unpack this weekend. I am dreading the process. Housework is really not my cup of tea.  The only inspiration I have is looking forward to finally organizing my craft table to work on NeuroBead.  I have been dreaming of this moment for so long.  To finally have a dedicated space for feeding my passion.  My started projects look lonely scattered around the room and I am looking forward to returning my attention to them in the coming weeks.