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Interstellate: Celebrating the the beauty of neuroscience

Caitlin Vander Weele, a graduate student in brain and cognitive sciences, launches a collaborative neuro-art pictorial magazine.
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Detail from an Interstellate cover
Detail from an Interstellate cover
Image courtesy of Caitlin Vander Weele.
Interstellate founder Caitlin Vander Weele in the Tye lab
Interstellate founder Caitlin Vander Weele in the Tye lab
Photo: Romy Wichmann

“Scientists take beautiful images of the brain every day, and for the most part no one gets to see them," says Caitlin Vander Weele, a graduate student in the MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. 

"Experiments fail all the time and the images just get buried. People don’t really get to see that side of science. At the end of the day, they aren’t really failed experiments. They help us generate better methods and come up with better hypotheses.”

A fifth-year graduate student in the lab of Assistant Professor Kay Tye, Vander Weele recently launched Interstellate, a neuro-art pictorial magazine, to share these images with the world.

The idea for creating the magazine evolved through social media. “I started tweeting images out and people gravitated towards them, both scientists and non-scientists,” says Vander Weele. “It occurred to me that using these kind of images might be really useful for science outreach and communication.”

Vander Weele had already begun to create a visual thesis of her work in the Tye lab to help explain her research at MIT to non-scientist friends and family. Expanding on that idea, she eventually collected between 150 and 200 images from 69 scientists in nine different countries.

“I was very surprised at how enthusiastic people were about the project. At the end of the day, you’re sharing data, and not everyone is comfortable doing that,” explains Vander Weele.

The magazine’s brilliantly colored images span the regions of the brain and include everything from individual neurons to clusters of cells, brain slices, and in one image, an entire rat brain. The broad range of colors and techniques used showcase the variety of ways that scientists are able to label different kinds of neurons and processes in the brain for study.

“Imagine you have a whole bunch of different types of noodles packed into a baseball, and you want to find the spaghetti. This is basically the same problem encountered by scientists wanting to target only a small number of cells in the brain. How do you do that? One way is to create a transgenic animal capable of expressing a fluorescent protein in a specific cell type that you want. When you slice the brain and look at it under a microscope, these neurons actually glow. Another way is a viral approach that enables us to insert modified DNA sequences that express a gene of interest, such as one that emits a fluorescent signal. You inject this virus into a brain region of interest and based on how it is designed, it will express your fluorescent protein only in specific cell types,” explains Vander Weele.

These techniques are part of the reason that Vander Weele came to MIT for graduate work. Originally from Frankenmuth, Michigan, her research in the Tye lab uses cutting edge tools, including optogenetics and in vivo calcium imaging. She was particularly interested in manipulating communication between different brain regions which share information about what is good and bad in our environment.

“When I was doing research as an undergraduate, scientists really didn’t have the tools to specifically manipulate connections between brain regions. We would lesion an area, or cause damage to it, or use electrical methods that weren’t very specific. MIT was leading the way in a lot of research that allowed us to precisely target a projection’s pathways in the brain and manipulate them. It was incredibly exciting.”

With so many images to choose from, selecting those that would be included in the magazine was a difficult choice. Volume two of Interstellate is already in the works, with new images being submitted weekly.

“My plan is to do one, maybe two more editions before passing the magazine on to someone else. It’s been a fantastic hobby: I’m interested in it, I’ve learned a lot through it, and I think that someone else could really benefit from working on it, as well.”

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