Monday, June 19, 2023

Threaded Pathways: Unraveling Neuroscience and Art in Hannah Warming's Needles & Neurons

Welcome to my latest blog entry, a space where the artistry of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the legendary Spanish Neuroscientist, becomes the muse for a unique fusion of science and art. As an artist, professor, and Fulbright Scholar, I have the privilege of exploring and breathing "the life" of Cajal's intricate scientific sketches within the four walls of my studio. Just as the swirling hues of a nebula inspire the astronomer, the delicate complexities of Cajal's drawings breathe inspiration into my work.

Cajal's life, filled with discovery and dedication to neuroscience, forms the bedrock of my artistry. His meticulously crafted drawings are not just records of the earliest ventures into the intricate labyrinth of the human brain but also beautiful works of art that capture the fascination and wonder that the human brain inspires.

In this post, we'll embark on a journey to explore Neuroscientist and emerging artist Dr. Hannah Warming. She is the founder of 'Needles & Neurons,' a burgeoning movement within the art world where neuroscience melds with the age-old art of embroidery. Needles & Neurons mission is to raise money for Alzheimer's Research by selling finished embroideries, embroidery patterns, and kits. This emerging artistic expression reflects a blurring of the lines between scientific exploration and creative expression, much like Cajal did with his illustrative documentation of Neuroscience. 

Hannah's work is far from being merely popular; it is critically acclaimed and deeply respected in both Neuroscience and artistic communities. To this recognition, her works have graced the cover of the prestigious Lancet journal and featured prominently in the Journal Consilience. But beyond creating beautiful, intellectually engaging art, Hannah's work also has a profoundly humanitarian dimension. Each sale of her embroidery designs contributes to Alzheimer's Research UK, raising significant funds to support research into this devastating disease.

Her creations push traditional needlework boundaries, weaving in drawing and painting elements to deepen the conceptual connections between form and content. She uses social media platforms to share her creative journey and underline scientific research's importance, sparking dialogues and connections with her ever-growing audience. This vibrant engagement has led to special graphic design commissions from the international community, further amplifying her impact.

Microscopy inspired embroidery of a Neuron by Dr. Hannah Warming of Needles & Neurons.

Needles & Neurons is more than an artistic endeavor; it's a labor of love. Each piece that Hannah crafts are wrapped with care and shipped to collectors with personal touches like custom stickers and thoughtful thank-you notes. Despite her bustling schedule as a postdoc researcher at the University of Oxford, Hannah found time to share her passion and the important work she's doing in an interview for this blog post. She firmly believes in the power of creativity to effect change and raise awareness, with each stitch serving as a testament to this belief. You can support this critical cause and own a piece of this beautiful artistry through her Ko-Fi and Etsy stores.

Now, let's examine briefly some of the scientific methods that underpin some of Dr. Warming's inspiration for these artworks: electrophysiology. This cutting-edge technique allows researchers to capture and study the electrical symphony that orchestrates our neural activity. By gently introducing a minuscule electrode into a neuron, scientists can measure the shifts in voltage as the neuron engages, providing valuable insight into the communication patterns of these complex cells.

An electrophysiologist often finds themselves at the forefront of these intricate studies. Armed with micropipettes, they meticulously record electrical signals emanating from cells. Every bit of data gathered brings them a step closer to understanding the secrets of how these cells operate and interact, thereby opening up possibilities for new treatment methodologies for various neurological disorders.

Picture this: a dedicated neuroscientist in the laboratory, a micropipette carefully positioned to contact a neuron, adjusting and fine-tuning the parameters to capture the purest signal. Dr. Hannah Warming has experienced that as she anticipates with excitement the treasure trove of new data she is collecting, knowing that hours of analysis and discovery lie ahead.

She once noted, "When I engage in electrophysiology, my interaction with the cells goes beyond mere observation. I literally touch and manipulate them. I place the pipette against the cell membrane, delicately breach it, and start recording the inner electrical currents. It's an intimate dance of science and discovery."

Detail of embroidery of the isoform of NMDAR the lab discovered during Dr. Hannah Warming's Master's research. The embroidery was designed and created as a gift for her supervisor.

Dr. Hannah Warming | Interview Questions:

Dawn: What inspired you to begin embroidery work? How did it all get started?

Hannah: Like many other creatives, I picked up new hobbies to keep myself busy during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns – as the first lockdown loomed in early 2020, I tried out a floral embroidery kit to teach myself a few stitches and was hooked right away. Once I had completed the kit, I looked for ideas of what to stitch next, and as I was stuck at home and missing the lab, I tried out embroidering a neuron with a patch clamp pipette – my first piece of science art! It was a bit wonky, but I loved how easily embroidery came to me and how therapeutic it was as an art form.

Dawn: Have you always created artwork?

Hannah: Since childhood, I have loved to draw and paint, but I never felt I was particularly "good" at getting the image in my head onto the paper - so for many years, I fell out of touch with my creative side. I had tried crochet in the past (inspired by my very talented sister!), however, I couldn't seem to get the tension right, and everything looked a bit wonky. With embroidery, something just clicked, and it felt like finally, I was able to get my ideas out in an accurate way. I love how the threads closely resemble the axons and neurites I see in my cells in the lab and the different textures you can create with one medium. 

Dawn: What inspired you to raise money for Alzheimer's research?

Hannah: During my Master's degree research and Ph.D. studies, I was part of a lab that primarily focused on Alzheimer's disease, although my own research was in other neuroscience topics. Our lab was supported significantly by funding from the charity Alzheimer's Research UK, who facilitated many great opportunities for me and my colleagues, such as conference attendances and networking meetings to aid our development as scientists and drive research forwards. I decided I wanted to use the new hobby & my accumulating stack of finished embroideries to raise funds and give something back, so ARUK was the clear choice! 

ARUK works hard to support research into improving not only the future for people with dementia with new diagnostics and treatments, but also to improve quality of life for those currently affected by the disease. Recently, much of the industrial research funding into neuroscience and diseases like Alzheimer's has been withdrawn as these conditions are difficult to treat and therefore not "profitable" enough, and so to see change in the future, the support of organizations like ARUK is a necessity.

Dawn: How do you decide what you want to embroider? Do you design all of your work?

Hannah: I design almost all of my embroideries, usually with a brief sketch on my iPad first to decide on placement and color options. Any that aren't my own design are usually based on the drawings of Ramón y Cajal – his intricate drawings of neurons are the perfect inspiration! I also like to copy my own microscopy from my lab work, if I take a particularly nice photo of a cell I have made recordings from.

I go through phases of what will be the subject of my designs based on what I see in my research – for example, when I was growing bacterial cultures in the lab to isolate DNA, I made some beaded petri dishes mimicking bacterial colonies. Nowadays, I spend time on the microscope imaging neurons I have made recordings from, and these are inspiring my current works. 

I have also had the pleasure of making many commissioned embroideries, usually as gifts for my customers' colleagues or graduating students. I believe the art should be scientifically accurate – this is a fun way to learn about new topics and cell types so that I can generate a design and stitch something that the recipient can enjoy as being personal to them. I love having such a wide array of subjects for my embroidery designs!

Full hoop of embroidery of the isoform of NMDAR the lab discovered during Dr. Hannah Warming's Master's research. The embroidery was designed and created as a gift for her supervisor.

Dawn: Your Master's is in Biomedical Science; what led you to neuroscience research?

Hannah: I remember saying during my undergraduate study that "I will never work in neuroscience," as I just did not enjoy it at all, to begin with! Over time I developed an interest in neurodegenerative disease and chose to take more modules on the topic. My Master's thesis was in the study of NMDA receptors, a type of protein that facilitates excitation through cell membranes and a key mediator of cell-to-cell communication. Our lab discovered a new form of the receptor that hadn't been previously identified in humans, which I found so exciting, and it led me to become very interested in the mechanisms of cell communication. This is also where I first tried patch-clamp as a technique and loved it.

From there, I decided to combine my interest in neurodegenerative disease with studying cell communication, and I studied cell damage in haemorrhagic stroke for my Ph.D. thesis, looking at how haemoglobin from the blood can alter cell health and communication. I'm now very passionate about understanding the brain, and I can't imagine working in a different field.

Dawn: What is the current focus of your Post Doc research? 

Hannah: After four years of studying stroke, I decided on a change in direction – but still wanted to use patch clamp in my work. I am currently working at the University of Oxford in the lab of Dr. Simon Butt, where we study brain development. I get to use really cool techniques to look at cell communications in the developing mouse brain by combining patch-clamp with laser-activation of cell signaling. We are investigating how certain treatments, such as antidepressants, can modify development and may lead to sensory disorders later in life. 

It's been a steep learning curve going from studying stroke to brain development in different regions of the brain than I am familiar with, but I love widening my neuroscience knowledge, and the techniques I use make it barely feel like work.

Dawn: How do you see art fitting into your life in the future?

Hannah: I really feel I have found "my" craft with embroidery, and I hope to continue it for many years to come. Post-PhD life is very busy, and I sadly have less time to focus on art these days; however, it is still my favorite thing to do in my downtime. I personally love having embroidery in my home, whether it is mine or from other artists, and my pieces I keep for myself tell a tale of my career so far. I hope to build on that and use art as a way to keep in touch with the neuroscience world wherever I end up. 

Dawn: I have noticed a lot of people with PhDs in neuroscience recently have pursued careers in the creative field, like illustration, graphic design, and visual communications. Do you ever wonder if your needlework might take you on a different professional path?

Hannah: It would be a dream to work in visual communications, but unfortunately, I think embroidery is too slow a craft for that! Some of my pieces take upward of 60 hours to complete, which is more suited to art for leisure rather than for professional projects with deadlines, such as in science communication. I love seeing fellow scientists branch out into creative fields and how each person has their own style in conveying information visually. 

That said, I do enjoy writing and creating graphics to communicate my research, and I have always loved public engagement to promote awareness of scientific information to a wider audience. I certainly won't rule out a more creative career – for now, I really enjoy hands-on research and am seeing where the neuroscience winds take me.

Dawn: What are your future plans for Needles & Neurons?

Hannah: Since I have less time to make embroideries these days, my brand has slightly shifted from a (very) small business more towards a hobby in my mindset to take the pressure off and allow it to be compatible with my other work. However, I have no intention of stopping embroidery under the name Needles & Neurons, and I will continue raising funds to support Alzheimer's Research UK – I still have multiple works in progress at any given time; they just take a little longer to complete! I would love to keep up my creative outlet, and maybe one day, when I am settled into a career, I might have a little more time to offer more kits, patterns, and tutorials to engage the next generation of scientists in science art too. 

Above are several examples of biology and neuroscience embroideries by Dr. Hannah Warming.