11 November 2020

#DrawnToGeoscience: Stitches in the brain

Posted by Shane Hanlon

#DrawnToGeoscience is a series of posts by artists who draw about science and explain their process and inspiration while also showcasing their pieces. Learn more about contributing. This week, Hannah Warming.

I used to love drawing and even painting on occasion but that gradually became eclipsed by my school/college and now university life as I got older. Since I wasn’t effortlessly amazing at drawing, it didn’t seem worth the time when there were much more ‘important’ things to focus on. I went down the STEM pathway in school, studying biology which I had always loved, collecting bugs for inspection from a young age and one of my prized possessions as a child being a miniature microscope. Looking back I think it only had a 10X objective, but still I thought it was brilliant!

Model organisms. Credit: Hannah Warming

Since then I studied Biomedical Science and achieved a Master’s, which led me into my PhD. I’m in my third year now, studying neuroscience looking at stroke and dementia processes on a single-cell level. I record communication between brain cells in my work, using extremely fine needle-like pipettes, which I think must be what led me to needlework in art.

I think there’s something fascinating and almost humorous about creating artwork of the brain, as if my own brain is paying itself a compliment. For example, when I created the Purkinje cell embroidery, my own Purkinje cells were facilitating the fine movement in my hands!

I started embroidery in March 2020, of course encouraged by the national lockdown in the UK meaning I had a lot more time on my hands. I found quickly that it was a perfect medium for representing themes in the brain such as brain cells and their fibrous shapes. Almost 100% of my inspiration comes from either the work I do in the lab, for example my own cultured brain cells or brain slices, or anatomical and microscopic imagery shared online.

Recently I have taken on a number of commissioned artworks and this has been great for inspiration outside of my usual neuroscience, for example a mammary gland duct I created which had beautiful patterns of cells.  

One project I am working on is a series of embroidered pieces to honour the model organisms that are used commonly in research, including frogs, mice, and even the C.elegans microscopic worm. Animal usage in science can be a controversial topic but I am really pleased to see some amazing science communication around the subject lately.

My art process is fairly simple – I tend to doodle a design on paper before either drawing straight onto fabric (with heat-erasable pen of course!) or recently I bought a light box which allows me to transfer the designs directly. I learned a few basic stitches and knots and like to play with the texture to convey my ideas, whether that is creating a silky smooth surface, textured fibres or adding beads. The great thing about embroidery is that if your line goes a little wonky you can just re-stitch it!

-Hannah Warming is a PhD student in neuroscience at the University of Southampton. You can find her art on Twitter @NeedlesNeurons and Instagram @Needlesandneurons.