The story of how one science communicator turned our brains into beautiful art

19 Apr 2019

Dr Caitlin Vander Weele, neuroscientist and science communicator. Image: Caitlin Vander Weele

Dr Caitlin Vander Weele found her way to science communication by chance, and she aims to spark an artistic revolution.

In an age when reporting on science is mired by threats from vested interests and some of the world’s most powerful (and well-funded) people, those keeping the torch lit can sometimes struggle to get the message across.

However, in the past few years, the stale image of a scientist in a lab coat closed off from the world has been replaced by a whole army of science communicators. These scientists – at the coalface of leading research – are not only reporting on important breakthroughs, but doing so in ways that are incredibly engaging.

Deep dive into the brain

One such researcher is Dr Caitlin Vander Weele, who recently arrived in Ireland to deliver a keynote at Trinity College Dublin on the blending of art and science. A neuroscientist and science communicator, Vander Weele now works at the PR firm Russo Partners in the biotech and medtech space.

A self-confessed “people watcher”, Vander Weele spoke with about how her fascination with why people do what they do started in the study of psychology. However, she quickly realised that if she was going to understand why people develop addictions, for example, she’d need to get to the root of the problem.

“I got really frustrated with theories and not really being able to dive deep into the brain and establish cause and effect relationships,” she said. “I really wanted to be able to manipulate specific brain regions and cells within those brain regions and figure out what happens.”

This pursuit would see her remote-control rodents with lasers to activate specific cells to see how it motivated their behaviours.

Close-up of Caitlin in the lab working with equipment and a microscope.

Image: Caitlin Vander Weele

During this time as a researcher – which included receiving her PhD from MIT – she said that being able to discover something that no one knows was a “really magical moment”.

So what was the spark that led her to make the move into science communication?

As is so often the case with life, a happy coincidence connected Vander Weele with a whole new world of thought, particularly online.

In her undergraduate days, she recalled being told to get on Twitter, despite not knowing what it was. “I realised that there was actually a really healthy and thriving academic and science community on Twitter and a lot of people that I looked up to, like professors, were actually having conversations on there.”

‘Sometimes when I was at MIT, I felt like I had no voice’

Seeing the thoughts of her peers and mentors made a serious, positive impact on Vander Weele’s mental health.

“It was particularly important at that time because when I was in MIT, I was with this cohort of graduate students who are absolutely incredible, super smart and knew exactly what they were doing. I kind of felt out of place because I thought: ‘I have no idea what I’m doing’.

“And so I started tweeting about what it was like and everyone had this kind of collective response that was: ‘Oh yeah, me too, like, this is normal’.”

She also said that, as a young woman in STEM, Twitter in particular offers something that many women researchers could only envy in days gone by: an “ongoing conference that you can pop into and out of whenever you want”.

“Sometimes when I was at MIT, I felt like I had no voice. No one was listening to what I was saying,” said Vander Weele. “But in this whole other realm, I learned who I was and who would listen to what I have to say. Now with #MeTooSTEM, people are finally talking about sexual harassment and discrimination of women in science. That’s been such a powerful platform to move those conversations along and I think that that’s such an incredible thing.”

Dozens of multicoloured spots against a black background.

Deep-rooted drivers of behaviour (DRDs) observed in the human brain, represented by various colours. Image: Caitlin Vander Weele/Tye Lab/MIT, Interstellate Volume 1

Hard drives full of art

Another facet of Vander Weele’s career so far was also spawned on social media; a way for her work in neuroscience to leap from scientific journals and into what amounts to works of art. Never one for believing art and science were on two opposite ends of the spectrum, she began a project called Interstellate.

“I was sharing these images and I realised how good they were … for communicating science, because my parents had no idea what I was doing as a scientist,” she said, recounting the project’s origin.

“We have hard drives and hard drives of images from either failed experiments or things that didn’t quite go right or were unpublishable. So many of them are incredible pieces of art and they grab your attention. The coolest thing is to say someone who doesn’t know: ‘That’s in your brain.’”

While Interstellate is on hiatus (“I graduated and moved to New York with an exciting new job, so you can only do so many things”), Vander Weele wants to expand it to become a science communication training programme that can spin out to become its own thing. This means it could explore different fields outside of neuroscience, or be more focused on the scientists behind the works of natural art.

“I can just help with negotiating printing costs and really guiding them through the science communication process, that is my ultimate goal,” she said.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic