Neuroscientist Finds a Campus That Embraces the Intersection of Science and Art

U. of Puget Sound

Siddharth Ramakrishnan
June 18, 2012

Siddharth Ramakrishnan

Age: 33

New job: Assistant professor of neuroscience at the University of Puget Sound and first holder of a chair in that field, endowed by the prominent biochemist Marvin H. Caruthers

Position he's leaving: Researcher in the Bioelectronics Systems Lab in the electrical-engineering department of Columbia University

Highest degree: Ph.D. in neuroscience, University of Illinois at Chicago, 2005

As a postdoc, I did research at UCLA on zebra-fish development. At some point—it was one of those days when you're happy if your experiment works, unhappy if it doesn't—it felt like I was in a selfish microcosm. 

Two things happened that week. One, I went out to a party where the people who met me could not believe that I, a fun and animated person, could be a scientist. I realized there is a huge divide between what people perceive happens in the sciences and what actually happens. A lot of cool people are doing really interesting stuff in their labs. The other was I met the UCLA nano­scientist Jim Gimzewski, who introduced me to Victoria Vesna, a multimedia artist who directs the UCLA Art|Sci Center.

Our conversations led to collaborations on art exhibitions founded in scientific topics like Hox genes and olfactory umwelts. Through art, I hope we are breaking the accessibility barrier to science. In the small Art|Sci community, I've talked to researchers who have contemplated working as artists but realized it's more amenable to make a living working as scientists. And a lot of artists I've met have thought about going into the sciences at one point. There seems to be a penchant for both inside a lot of us.

I wondered how to balance being a scientist while whetting my creativity within Art|Science and have deferred to Professor Gimzewski's advice that it's tough, but you just need to keep creating and something will come out of it. Some researchers do laugh at you, but more and more young scientists are excited about collaborating with artists.

I think the culture is emerging to where it's OK to talk about it.

For the last three years I've been at Columbia University, creating hybrid neural-electronic devices, biosensors, and biobatteries. Last fall I applied for the position at the University of Puget Sound. When I went there for interviews, I didn't have to hide anything. Every single faculty member I met made a point of asking me, "So tell me about your art work. How can I be involved?" It's a place where the liberal arts and sciences truly seem to be together.

The neuroscience program at Puget Sound developed a few years ago, when some faculty from biology, occupational therapy, and psychology came together and volunteered to develop some courses in neuroscience. What they created has blossomed, and they wanted a more dedicated position to take it further.

I've really missed the classroom while working in big research institutions, and have had to teach on the side, both at UCLA and the New School for Design. I was excited to see the inquiry-based learning at Puget Sound, and the curiosity and enthusiasm of the students.

Apart from the core neuroscience curricula, I also hope to develop interdisciplinary classes in art and science after my appointment begins, in January. The professorship has some money for a small research facility. In October I'll start setting up my research lab to examine neuroendocrine systems in zebra fish.

I've had these disparate but interesting things I've done, all of which I am passionate about, and this is the first time I can use all the things I do in one job.