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When science and art collide

WVU biology student wins first place in national science photo contest

Kristyn Lizbinski, a doctoral student studying biology at West Virginia University, won first prize in DRVision and Interstellate's 2017 Neuroscience Travel Award contest, which promotes interesting art from the neuroscience field.

Lizbinski, a Drums, Pennsylvania native, was awarded a stipend from DRVision to attend the 2017 Society for Neuroscience conference, where her 3D microscopy image was presented. Her winning image was also featured in the second volume of Interstellate, a leading science art magazine created by a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology to showcase what scientists observe during their research.    

Kristyn Lizbinksi, a doctoral student studying biology at West Virginia University.
Kristyn Lizbinski

“Seeing art in my research is just appreciating the beauty of biology that you do not necessarily always see,” Lizbinski said. “There’s this hidden world that we do not see, but is actually right under our eyes and we need a microscope to appreciate it. When I’m looking through the scope, I’m the only person seeing something new for the first time, and that’s super exciting.”

While studying the olfactory system of a moth in WVU biology professor Andrew Dacks’s lab, Lizbinski used microscopy to make the chemicals released by neurons in the brain glow.

“The olfactory system of a moth is organized similarly to humans’ olfactory systems,” Lizbinski said. “Because they are really good at smelling, we use them to get these basic principles.”

All of the different colors in her image show chemicals being released by the neurons.

“In addition to being a talented researcher, (Lizbinski) has a great eye for composing an image that is both visually stunning and shows the complexity of the brain,” said Dacks, an assistant professor of neuroscience. “While studying the brain has obvious value for our own health, the intricate structures of neurons have allowed many neuroscientists to produce images that are as evocative and mesmerizing as anything you might see in an art gallery or museum”

The 2017 Neuroscience Travel Award aimed to promote and highlight the neuroscience field through beautiful images taken by researchers. High-quality 3D imaging gives neuroscientists the chance to examine the way neurons connect, transfer information and interpret their surroundings. Lizbinski was chosen by a panel of judges consisting of several scientists and Michael Angelakos, a mental health advocate and front man of American indie pop band Passion Pit.

“Sometimes science has a delayed gratification,” Lizbinski said. “You’re working really hard for months and months, so getting a nice positive reinforcement is always good.”

For winning first place in the national contest, Lizbinski’s photo was chosen to be featured in science art magazine “Interstellate,” which was created to highlight the images scientists examine every day that the public does not typically see.

“Anyone can appreciate something that is beautiful. You can look at it, and it’s fascinating. You don’t necessarily need a scientific background to appreciate something that looks cool,” Lizbinski said. “The merging of science and art is a way to get a conversation going about science because when we show something that is beautiful and fascinating and then that gets people interested in what they’re looking at in the picture.”

Tyler Sizemore, a graduate student studying biology at West Virginia University.
Tyler Sizemore

Tyler Sizemore, another WVU biology graduate student researching in Dacks’s lab, also had an image published in the magazine issue.

“Publications like Interstellate are wonderful mechanisms that act as a jumping off point for educating others about different avenues of science and scientific discovery,” Sizemore said. “The beautiful images tend to captivate people at first glance, but as the reader continues they learn about the science behind each image.”

The lab Lizbinski primarily works in studies neuromodulation, which is the way neurons alter themselves in response to a stimulus. However, Lizbinski is primarily interested in how sensory systems are able to take an external stimulus and turn it into electrical impulses so that someone can see, touch or feel. She aspires to continue researching within this realm in the future, which is being made possible every day in the lab at WVU.

“I’ve learned invaluable skills at WVU like thinking creatively and independently, and how to do good science because WVU has strong resources and the Department of Biology is very collaborative,” Lizbinski said. “As for the future of science and art, there’s an untapped potential for public outreach that hasn’t necessarily been explored and I think people should continue going in that direction.”