Ackland Visitor Talks About Her Pyramidal Neuron Tattoo

Jane Tandler has a Masters of Science in Neurobiology and works at a Durham nonprofit. Like our previous Cajal-tattooed interviewee, she chose the iconic The pyramidal neuron of the cerebral cortex. The Ackland’s Ariel Fielding talked with her about her Ph.D. research, her affinity for the work of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, and life after neuroscience.

I’m so happy to be talking with you, Jane! A colleague shared a photo of your tattoo from the day you visited The Beautiful Brain, and I’ve wanted to interview you ever since. In the meantime I heard about another local resident with a Cajal tattoo, Vincent Boudreau, and it was when I posted my interview with him that I found you. How many times did you visit the exhibition?

Just the once. I was really excited to hear that it was coming, and it was beautiful. I went with some scientist friends of mine.

Did you have a favorite image in the show?

I mean, I’m biased toward the one I’d chosen for my tattoo, The pyramidal neuron of the cerebral cortex. That was the most exciting one to see. I was in a neuroscience Ph.D. program at Duke, so I’ve looked at these images for years and years. Being able to see them in person was really very cool.

Tell me about your work in neuroscience.

I came to the Cognitive Neuroscience admitting program at Duke in 2015. This is sort of a long, circuitous story, but I’ll try to make it brief. I was going to study PTSD and embodied cognition, thinking about how the symptoms of PTSD reflect the physical experience of trauma. Then I switched gears, because it’s a rotation program—you rotate through different disciplines and pick whichever one seems most interesting. I ended up in developmental psychoneuroimmunology, which is how the immune system formed in utero affects the brain, specifically linking immune insults by air pollution to eventual development of autism.

Whoa, so interesting!

I know! I totally fell in love with that idea and that topic, and then that mentor moved to Harvard. I don’t know how much you’re aware of the structure of Ph.D. programs, but you’re tied to your mentor. After a long back and forth about whether or not I was moving with her, I ended up staying at Duke and joining a different lab, studying the immune system and how it interacts with the retina, looking at glaucoma and other neurodegenerative diseases, and how immune cells play a role in perhaps accelerating neurodegeneration. And then, a year later, that mentor left to go to the NIH. I ended up in another lab looking at drug development and developing tools for neuroscience halfway between neurobiology and biomedical engineering. By this point I was in my third year, and after a year in that lab—which was great, I really enjoyed working there, and they were doing amazing work—the work that I was doing with a bunch of nonprofits in the area doing pro bono consulting was much more fulfilling to me than being bounced around from lab to lab. I ended up switching gears, and I work now at a local nonprofit in Durham called Senior PharmAssist, where we help older adults obtain and better manage needed medications and health insurance. That’s my autobiographical spiel. I’m the Development and Communications Director here.

I got my Cajal tattoo in 2016, because I had wanted it for five years, and I told myself, “If I want it for five years, I can get it.” That was my deadline, I met it, and I have no regrets about it at all. Neuroscience has been a big part of my life, even though I’m no longer in the field.

How did you pick that particular image, The pyramidal neuron of the cerebral cortex?

I spent a lot of time looking through the images. There aren’t a lot that are super scalable; many of them are larger than one might want for one’s first tattoo. There are a lot that are intricate and interwoven, so it’s hard to separate out distinct elements. This one was just so clean-cut, and it fit so perfectly in this particular space on my back that I’d picked; it seemed so nicely framed. It was a pretty intuitive choice. I kept coming back to it, which was a good indication to me that it was a good idea.

Do you remember the first time you saw a Cajal drawing?

I think probably when I was fifteen. I read this book called Second Nature, by Gerald Edelman. He has some Cajal drawings in there; that might have been my first sighting. The other thing is that I grew up obsessed with the Spanish language and Spanish culture. I spent a lot of time in high school learning Spanish and travelling to Spain. I did an immersion program, and I T.A.’d in college. So it was a very nice tie-in to have such an important neuroscientist be an important part of Spanish history as well. My second mentor, the one who’s doing glaucoma research, gave me an early copy of Cajal’s autobiography, which is an extremely cool thing to have.

Do you still maintain an interest in the topics you studied with your mentors?

Yeah, it helps that I formed some really close friendships in graduate school. I have the squad that I went to the Cajal exhibit with, who are passionate, intelligent people who are also lovely and great to spend time with. That’s helped me to stay in constant communication with the field. I get to hear about their work. I’m still on a bunch of email lists, and I follow the research, but honestly it’s been nice to get a little bit of space from it. You feel like there’s less pressure on the day-to-day to solve Parkinson’s or something. I’m glad that really smart people are doing that, and I’m going to be over here trying to get seniors the medications they need. It’s just a little more tangible.

Photograph by Brenda Yang

Vincent Boudreau, UNC Cell Biologist, Gets Cajal Tattoo

Vincent Boudreau, recently turned Dr. Vincent Boudreau, is a graduate student in Cell Biology at UNC. A rumor reached the Ackland that Boudreau had a tattoo of a Cajal drawing on his arm, so naturally we wanted to find out more. The Ackland’s Ariel Fielding interviewed this fellow Canadian-North Carolinian shortly before the closing of The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal.

You are one of two visitors to The Beautiful Brain whom I know of with a Cajal tattoo. I understand that, by sheer coincidence, you heard The Beautiful Brain was coming to the Ackland right after you had decided to get your tattoo. Tell me about your work at UNC and why Cajal is important to you.

As a cell biologist, I’ve always been very taken by these nineteenth century/turn-of-the-century scientists who illustrated their findings. It’s always seemed a cross between science and art in some way. I’ve always been inspired by that. Santiago Ramón y Cajal is not the only one; I’ve really loved illustrations by Ernst Haeckel and several others who are well known for that kind of work. The inspiration for the tattoo that I got is someone very close to me, my daughter, who has a brain condition. Obviously that’s a difficult situation, but one thing that really struck me about trying to learn about the molecular and cellular components of that condition, and also the potential outcomes, was both how little we know about how the brain works, and how mysterious it is as an organ. Santiago Ramón y Cajal—we can see it in the exhibit—shows how complex different types of cells are in the brain, and how complex the connections between cells are. The inspiration for my tattoo comes from the artistic component of his work, his ability to delicately illustrate things that are so complex, as well as the mysteries of how the brain works.

Why this particular image, The pyramidal neuron of the cerebral cortex?

Getting a tattoo—there are several components that go into it. One of the main things is, how easy is it to put on skin? Images or drawings that have small, delicate lines with very high contrast are perfect. That’s one of the components of his images. I think that drawing in particular is one of his illustrations that, to me, is most aesthetically pleasing. It really illustrates how complex that particular type of neuron can be while being simple enough to put into tattoo form.

It’s interesting what you said about your daughter; I just learned that Wilder Penfield, a neurologist and neurosurgeon who studied with Cajal, was deeply interested in solving the mystery of epilepsy because his sister had the disease. I don’t know what you’d call that kind of impetus, but I wonder how common it is among scientists.

I’ve been in science for the better part of ten years, and I’ve found my own inspirations. I’m very interested in the intersection of science and art. The way that scientists operate is very similar to the way that many artists operate, in the way they pursue their work and in what inspires them. I’ve found inspiration in my work, but I have thought about the complexities of the nervous system and the complexities of neuroscience, and considered changing course, especially with the situation with my daughter. The question of impetus is very interesting.

Do you have an artistic practice yourself?

I don’t, but my partner Natalie is a curator for Kalisher in Carrboro. We’ve hosted a conference here at RTP [Research Triangle Park] on the boundaries between art and science. I think there are a lot of parallels in the ways that artists and scientists work and think, and also their practice, their craft. For scientists and artists, their work is something that comes to be with hours and hours of work, with craftsmanship, and with dedication.

Tell me about your scientific work.

My Ph.D. has been on, broadly, cell division, and when cells divide, regardless of the context in which they divide, the nucleus of the cell needs to be assembled every time. This happens especially in development almost a trillion times to form all the cells of the body. I’ve been very interested in how the nucleus, which houses all the genetic material of the cell, comes to be and how it’s physically built. That’s more or less been the cornerstone of my thesis, and why the regulation of the shape and size of the nucleus after cell division is really critical in maintaining healthy cells. We know that that kind of process goes wrong in disease states, especially in cancer.

So you’re looking also at what can go wrong in cell division and what factors can influence that?

Exactly. This is another thing that has drawn me to Santiago Ramón y Cajal and other turn-of-the-century scientists: I’ve spent most of my time doing microscopy, watching cells behave and carry out their functions. The microscopy that we do today is very different from the microscopy that was done in Cajal’s time, and I think that’s illustrated in the exhibit, in having a contemporary component. It’s always something that’s been striking in this kind of work: we interpret our images and our microscopy in a similar way, whether that’s in a more quantitative fashion or in deciding what we’re looking at. Santiago Ramon y Cajal had to interpret what he saw under the microscope to illustrate exactly the point that he was trying to make. In cell biology today, the importance of interpreting what we see under the microscope is no less than it was for Cajal.


Harley Smyth and Santiago Ramón y Cajal: One Degree of Separation

Harley Smyth at Oxford


Harley Smyth (M.A., M.D., D.Phil. Oxon.) is a Canadian neurosurgeon whose career was deeply influenced by a series of encounters with Wilder Penfield (1891-1976), a pioneering American-Canadian neurologist, neurosurgeon, and founder of the Montreal Neurological Institute. In the spring of 1924, Penfield travelled to Spain with the express purpose of studying with Santiago Ramón y Cajal and his fellow neuroscientist Pío del Río Hortega at the Residencia des Estudiantes, Laboratorio de Histopatología, in Madrid. Cajal,who won the Nobel Prize jointly with the Italian Camillo Golgi in 1906, is best known for the neuron doctrine, or the idea that the brain is composed of individual cells, and for his thousands of extraordinary drawings of the microanatomy of the brain, still unequalled in accuracy and beauty. Río Hortega discovered microglia, the cells that protect the brain from infection. Penfield, who together with Río Hortega discovered oligodendroglia—the cells which support and protect the axons of the central nervous system—is best known for his work on the cortical basis of higher function and for his innovations in epilepsy surgery.

The Residencia des Estudiantes, where Penfield went to learn from Cajal, was conceived as a center for artistic and scientific innovation and exchange. It flourished during Spain’s Silver Age, a period of tremendous creativity and experimentation in the decades leading up to the Spanish Civil War. Albert Einstein visited the Residencia in 1923, just a year before Wilder Penfield. Poet Federico Garcia Lorca was there during the same time as Penfield, as were filmmaker Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí.

Just as Penfield was profoundly influenced by the burgeoning interdisciplinary atmosphere of the Residencia de Estudiantes, Harley Smyth was influenced by Penfield, the person who connected him to Cajal in the lineage of modern neuroscience.

Director of Communications Ariel Fielding talked to Harley Smyth a week before the closing of the exhibition The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal at the Ackland Art Museum, and the subsequent return of Cajal’s drawings to Madrid.

You are just one degree of separation from Santiago Ramon y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience. Tell me how you came to meet Wilder Penfield, the man who is the connector between you and Cajal.

 At the age of fourteen I had decided to become a neurosurgeon. I recall having read a Maclean’s magazine article about Wilder Penfield. It featured the famous Karsh photograph of Penfield at his microscope, and I think the caption was “A musing genius.” This gave me an introduction to Wilder Penfield and his vision. My uncle, a military physician, was interested in fostering any medical interest that I had, and he somehow arranged that I could meet with Dr. Penfield if I went to Montreal. I travelled by train from Ottawa to Montreal at the age of fifteen. I found my way to the Montreal Neurological Institute and entered its picturesque lobby. A copy of the sculpture entitled La Nature se dévoilant à la Science stood centrally. On a nearby wall hung a splendid autographed portrait of Pío del Río Hortega. It was a revealing introduction to the spirit of the Institute.  I met with Dr. Penfield and was fascinated by my first viewing of a neurosurgical operation.

The next chapter was my entry into medical school at Queen’s University just two years later, in 1957, at the age of seventeen. It was because of Dr. Penfield that the first book I bought as a first-year pre-medical student was a graphic biography of Cajal. In the penultimate year of medical school I spent a long summer in Uganda and worked there with Dr. Denis Burkitt, who was making the first causal connection between a virus and a human cancer, Burkitt’s lymphoma. I was fascinated by Burkitt’s elegant blending of climate, rainfall, and epidemiology as an example of interdisciplinary original research. Later that year I was a successful applicant for a Rhodes Scholarship, and now that I knew I was headed for Oxford and an attempt at research experience, I wrote once again to Dr. Penfield. I wrote that, “I’ve tried to follow in your footsteps, and somehow or other I’ve won a Rhodes Scholarship. I’ve written to Oxford to attempt to plan my studies, but I never received any reply.” Penfield said, “Well, Smyth, nobody ever returns letters from Oxford. Why don’t you come see me, and we’ll talk about what you can do.” I went to Montreal and met with him again. That evening he attended our Rhodes Scholars’ Sailing Dinner where he addressed the departing scholars.

In the course of that evening, Penfield said, “Here’s what worked for me at Oxford.” Penfield had been going back and forth from England to France to help at military hospitals; he was a wound-dresser at World War One hospital stations in France between terms at Oxford. On the return journey of one of these trips, his ship was torpedoed by an early German U-boat and his leg was shattered into several pieces. He ended up, amazingly, being taken back to Oxford to 13 Norham Gardens, the residence of the Regius Professor of Medicine, Sir William Osler, the great Canadian physician. Penfield was nursed by Lady Osler, and thus became acquainted with Sir William Osler. Wilder Penfield was an American-born Rhodes Scholar, from Wisconsin, and Lady Osler was American—she was a Revere, descended from Paul Revere—their son was named Revere, and he was fighting in France.

Sir William said to him, “Now, Penfield, I think you should meet Sir Charles Sherrington. He is a neurophysiologist, and his research is in neurology.” That was the very first inkling that Wilder Penfield had that he would be involved in neuroscience. Sherrington was a poet, a philosopher, and a scientist. Penfield worked with Sherrington in his laboratory for several months learning about reflexes and nerve conduction and neurology. Then Penfield conceived the idea that he would like to be involved in research in curing epilepsy. Why? Because his sister had epilepsy. He determined that the clue to working in neurology in a way that would actually be practically applied to the welfare of patients was to find out what caused epilepsy. He suspected that it was scarring on the cortex, and that to understand what caused the scarring, he needed to understand every set of cells present in the cortex. As he sought this basic knowledge, he learned that Cajal was working in Madrid, and that he had produced these marvelous microdemonstrations of the infrastructure of the cortex.

Cajal was not multilingual; most of his work was published in Spanish. Penfield decided to go to Madrid to learn more of this original work. What Penfield understood, and this is the amazing thing to me, is the absolute importance of learning about the histocytology of the central nervous system, and learning what its actual structure was. Penfield and his wife and child went to Madrid. He found Cajal in a profound depression for part of the time of his visit, perhaps because most of his original work had not been published in the wider world.

Wilder Penfield at Princeton, 1913

To return to Penfield’s advice to you, though, what did you do about it when you arrived in Oxford?

 In Montreal, Penfield had advised that as soon as I arrived in Oxford, I should make an appointment to meet the current Regius Professor of Medicine, Sir George Pickering. I did, and I found myself in the former residence of Sir William Osler. Pickering was resting in his bedroom after an international tour of lectures. I told him that Penfield had sent me, and that I was looking for advice about how best to spend the year or two of my Rhodes Scholarship. He said, “Smyth, you should study Schools. It’s our very best scientific degree, The Honours School of Animal Physiology.” I went to discuss it with the tutors at Balliol College, and they agreed to help me along. My tutor was none other than Denis Noble, who was in his first year of teaching at Oxford. I was his first student. He had just completed famous work in Imperial College London, where he had rewritten the Hodgkin-Huxley equations for nerve conduction, and applied them to the nervous system of the heart, the Purkinje fibers. He was a brilliant young biophysicist and physiologist.

I set to work learning the history of physiology, how it was formed, and what kind of critical thinking was involved in designing experiments. The graduates of this course were meant to emerge as independent researchers with an ability to design an experiment. Sir George Pickering was a leader in the field of human clinical experimental medicine and a leading world authority on high blood pressure. His team designed experiments to study actual human physiology, rather than primarily operating on animals. Schools was a three-year course, but I began to think I might write the exams in one year—I was so short of time and money. I took the exams at the end of that year and got a First.

I then went to see Sir George Pickering again, and he asked me come to work with him. I said to him, “What I really want to do is to find out how the brain lowers the blood pressure during sleep.” In the summer term of 1965, I returned to the Montreal Neurological Institute where I learned how to study human sleep. During the course of my research back in Oxford, which would take three more years, Dr. Penfield came for a Rhodes Scholars Dinner one November. It brought full circle that first meeting I had with him when I was fifteen. I took him and Mrs. Penfield in my Morris Mini-Minor in the pouring rain to see the Canadian maple tree they had given to Sir George Pickering to plant in his garden in memory of Sir William Osler. This was eleven years after we first met. Our last contact was when I invited Dr. Penfield to come and give his final lecture, on cortical stimulation, at the Toronto Academy of Medicine. I think he was seventy-six at the time.

You and I met many years ago singing sacred polyphonic music of the Renaissance, sixteenth century English polyphony, and Gregorian chant. The halls of the Residencia de Estudiantes, where Wilder Penfield went to study with Santiago Ramón y Cajal in 1924, were filled with music, and it is likely that Penfield crossed paths with Lorca, Buñuel, and Dalí when he was there. As a neurosurgeon, what does art mean to you?

 Art and the humanities in general are inseparable from science in the world of learning. Your exhibit ties beautifully together the abilities of Cajal as both an artist and a scientist. Perhaps very early on I was aware that medical studies and neurosurgery threatened to be too narrowing, too focused, too exclusive. I feared I would not have a broad education and I did my best to study Latin and Greek, Philosophy and English during my pre-medical years at Queen’s. I would attempt this grounding before I got lost in science. Again, Penfield was my exemplar, writing in other genres, championing the learning of second languages in youth, and lending his influence to the Vanier Institute for the Family.

I loved your reflection on our shared experience of singing. I thought about the Residencia in Madrid. You mentioned Lorca, Buñuel, and Dalí. Penfield himself reflected that many influential people there were involved in deeply humanitarian concerns and were leaders in a movement that would culminate in the Spanish Civil War. I like to think that there might have been a chapel or church near enough to the Residencia to enable the students to hear the music of a Mass by Tomás Luis de Victoria, the great Spanish Renaissance composer. Perhaps not many of those radicals went to Mass, but Penfield himself said that even the scientists in that place and time were as much involved in humanistic reforms as they were in science.

UNC-Trained Neurologist Talks About Her Role in ‘The Beautiful Brain’

Janet Dubinsky
, Ph.D., is a neuroscientist at the University of Minnesota who was involved in organizing the exhibition The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal. As a researcher, she is interested in mitochondrial permeability. She also has a program, BrainU, which engages teachers in teaching about and applying neuroscience in the classroom. Dr. Dubinsky is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill. She talked with Director of Communications Ariel Fielding on a recent visit to the Ackland to see The Beautiful Brain.

How did you come to study neuroscience, and why did you choose UNC?

Well, the brain is in charge of everything we do. At the time I went to graduate school, we were just beginning to really comprehend in a concrete way some of the discrete building blocks at the molecular and cellular level that contribute to brain function, and it was very exciting. I wanted to be a part of that. I had worked for many years doing computer programming for small laboratory computers when they were first built; they were made to take biological signals from real experiments and digitize them. Most of the labs that I worked in were neuroscience labs, so having been a part of that process from a technician’s point of view, getting my Ph.D. was the next step — to see if I could myself enter the field and make a contribution.

One of my undergraduate advisors suggested I look at UNC, and I did. Ed Perl [Edward R. Perl, Chair of the Department of Physiology from 1971-1987] called me and said, “Please come,” so I did. He was a very good persuader.

We have some of his slides in the show — Cajal’s slides that were in Edward Perl’s collection.

That’s the most exciting piece for me. We didn’t have them at any of the other sites. Those are really very precious.

It’s extraordinary that they were already here in Chapel Hill.

I didn’t remember them when we put the exhibit together. I might not even have known about them, though maybe there was something in my training — those fragments of conversation when you’re young don’t always come back when you’re older. The Cajal Institute for many years would give things away to visiting scientists. All of these drawings had been stored in drawers in a closet for decades, and the material is precious historically and from the point of view of the field. But they didn’t have money for honoraria, so that’s what the Cajal Institute would use — Cajal’s slides or other materials. It became its own currency.

Tell me about your involvement in The Beautiful Brain. How did the exhibition get started?

The exhibition got started because Alfonso Araque, who had worked at the Cajal Institute, joined our faculty in Minnesota. He knew where the Cajal drawings were, he knew they were not displayed, he knew how precious they were to the field, and he knew how artistic they were, because he’d seen them himself in person regularly. He went to another colleague, Eric Newman, who came for the opening [of The Beautiful Brain at the Ackland]; Eric has connections to the art world in Minneapolis-St. Paul. His father was a nationally noted portrait photographer. Alfonso and Eric went to Lyndel King, who is the director of the Weisman Art Museum, and showed her some of the published drawings in various books. Immediately she wanted to do the exhibit. They decided they were going to put the exhibit in a historical context. So they went to the History of Medicine Library to have the librarians pull appropriate anatomical drawings of the brain prior to Cajal.

Then they decided that they also wanted to show contemporary neuroscience, and they came to me, because I do a lot of public communication of neuroscience. I was asked to do the contemporary side. At the same time, we all began to work on everything together. We formed a really close team, and that part was just as exciting as anything else: working together with Lyndel and her staff at the Weisman to communicate the neuroscience and the art of Cajal. The exhibit had this dual purpose that has blended so perfectly in all of the different sites. It’s been really exciting to see how the exhibit has been received.

Did you imagine that it would be so successful? When the Ackland is open, there are always people in the exhibition, our tours are very popular, and our public programs, many of which have been organized in collaboration with the UNC Neuroscience Center, are always full.

We had no idea how it would play in the art world. Brains usually draw attention because everybody has one, and everybody wants to know how it works inside themselves. So there’s always something personal about a brain exhibition. One or two of Cajal’s drawings had been displayed publicly in different galleries, one at the Tate, and one or two at a gallery in Istanbul, and then there’s a set of six on display at the NIH (National Institutes of Health), but you can’t get to those because the NIH campus is closed, so that’s not really a public display site. We knew there was an audience, but we had no idea how large. His works had never been displayed in a museum setting, or even as a body of work together. Scientifically, all of his works are published, and you have some volumes of the published work on display, but an art museum is a whole new venue for him. Considering his original desire to become an artist as a young man, I think it brings Cajal full circle. It’s very, very exciting. The galleries have been full everywhere. Part of the learning process for me in helping put together the exhibit was to see how all the different sites reinterpret it. I’ve been to all the locations. It’s just so exciting!