The Brain As Art

Carl Schoonover ’06 merges science and aesthetics.

Carl Schoonover
Phrenologists held that the specific site of bumps on the  skull, as marked on this nineteenth-century specimen, helped indicate a subject’s cognitive or moral strengths and weaknesses by revealing the volume of brain area beneath each one.
A photomicrograph showing different components of the rat cerebellum, including Purkinje neurons in green, glia (nonneuronal cells) in red, and cell nuclei in blue.
Italian histologist and future Nobel laureate Camillo Golgi made this drawing of a dog’s olfactory bulb in 1875. The features were revealed by a revolutionary method for staining nerve tissue that today bears his name.

With flyaway hair and distinctive scarves—a fashion holdover from his childhood in France—Carl Schoonover ’06 cuts a stylish figure in the lab at Columbia’s doctoral program in neuroscience. But as a National Science Foundation-funded graduate student dedicated to researching brain circuits, he’s more inspired to talk about what goes on inside the head than what grows on top.

The convergence of the aesthetically beautiful and the scientifically compelling forms the heart of Schoonover’s Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century. The recent book features stunning images, ranging from medieval sketches and delicate nineteenth-century drawings by the founder of modern neuroscience, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, to the modern Brainbow, in which neurons are seen in color thanks to fluorescent proteins. (Brainbow was developed in the lab jointly run by Knowles professor of molecular and cellular biology Jeff Lichtman and professor of molecular and cellular biology Joshua Sanes, where Schoonover worked as an undergraduate; see “Shedding Light on Life,” May-June 2008, page 40.) “It seems improbable,” Schoonover says, “that we can extract so much structure from something that, just looked at under a microscope, is gray and fairly amorphous. There are many beautiful stories about how you treat that slice of brain tissue—manipulate it, denature it—in order, paradoxically, to reveal its true nature.”

So entranced was Schoonover by the brain that he used to keep especially wondrous images of neurons in his wallet and show them off like a proud parent. Once he and a woman struck up a conversation at a Manhattan café, “and things led as they invariably do to brains,” he explains. Out came the pictures and the woman, an editor at Abrams Books, soon became his editor for Portraits of the Mind. “This is the stuff scientists are looking at on a day-to-day basis,” Schoonover explains, yet the images and data are usually cordoned off in the pages of scientific journals. To reach a wider, lay audience, each chapter in the book details different techniques for studying the brain, such as Brainbow, electrical recordings of neuron activity, and antibody staining. “If the images are extraordinarily beautiful,” Schoonover writes in the preface, “I would argue that the principles underlying the techniques that created them are in some instances even more exquisite.”

The book balances the scientist’s obsession with detail and the artist’s appreciation for beauty, a reflection of Schoonover’s own multifaceted sensibilities: hands-on researcher, student of philosophy, writer, and lover of the arts. At Harvard, he organized concerts at the Signet Society and Lowell House—he used to play the saxophone and the violin—and was klappermeister for Lowell’s Russian bells. At Columbia, he works full-time in a lab, but has made time to cofound NeuWrite (a collaborative forum for scientists and writers), attend music concerts weekly, and host a radio show on classical and contemporary music that occasionally discusses music’s relationship to the brain and counts, among its past guests, neurologist Oliver Sacks and Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music.

“He’s very eager and kind and intent on drawing people out,” says his roommate, fellow doctoral candidate Andrew Fink. One day Schoonover struck up a conversation with a man on the subway who turned out to be an important administrator at the Morgan Library and Museum, who was carrying a box of opera records he was getting rid of. Schoonover offered to add the LPs to his own collection (2,500 albums in his apartment and 1,000 more in storage). The man became a friend and frequent dinner guest. One of the few things Schoonover cooks is Julia Child’s recipe for beef bourguignon; the recipe is covered with meticulous annotations that often have him in the kitchen acting “with ferocious exactitude” at 3 a.m., Fink reports. “Carl,” he adds, “is very good at bringing together people who care about things and creating situations where it feels okay to be weirdly passionate about what you do.”

Schoonover’s ability to pursue, in tandem, what are sometimes seen as opposed interests made him stand out even at Harvard, his friends and colleagues say. “Carl proposes these fairly ambitious projects that look like they’re straddling fields in a way that doesn’t seem realistic,” says his mentor, Joshua Sanes. “They seem like a prayer for disaster, but he’s pulled off every one of them.” That gift, combined with a highly adaptable intellect, a bottomless well of enthusiasm, and what a former lab mate described as “an unusual lack of self-consciousness” may help explain why he seems to be extremely good at so many things.


Schoonover’s expatriate American parents, a retired information-technology security specialist and a homemaker, moved to France, looking for a “change of scene,” shortly before he and his siblings were born. Although he recalls no special early love of science, he says he chose that track over humanities (despite being clearly drawn to philosophy) in secondary school to preserve options in the European system of education. “I did not enjoy the science classes,” he reports, but was always drawn to the intersection of philosophical and scientific questions, such as how language develops and how the mind works. He was devoted to the concept of open inquiry fostered by both disciplines, and did have one thrilling glimpse into the creative and entrepreneurial aspects of scientific experimentation, thanks to his lycée’s biology teacher, Emmanuel Ferraris, “who taught me many years ago that biology can be beautiful, even when it is confusing.” (Portraits of the Mind is dedicated to him.)

“In the classroom, the way you learned science was to learn facts and replicate experiments with known outcomes,” Schoonover says of his French education. “But Ferraris had us design and do an experiment of our own.” Schoonover focused on a friend who was a heavy smoker and structured an experiment to see what would happen to the latter’s oxygen capacity if he quit for a few weeks. “You could formulate a question and, if you did the process carefully enough, you would get an answer,” he says. “To this day, I find that mode of inquiry exhilarating.”

Throughout college, Schoonover balanced his interests in philosophy and biology, first at Columbia, where he was so intrigued by lab work that he approached a research director, said, “I am very eager and completely ignorant,” and landed a position washing dishes. That slowly evolved into actual research and three summers of working on neuroscience projects.

At the same time, he was still exploring philosophy, and transferred to Harvard in his junior year to pursue subjects like Wittgenstein and logic, along with science. “I was more idealistic when I started out about the possibility of doing both science and philosophy,” Schoonover recalls. But in the end, he found that “the neuroscience I am most interested in is at the level of molecules, cells, circuits, which doesn’t have much to do with the questions philosophers were asking about mind and language.”

In an introductory neuroscience course taught by another formative teacher, professor of molecular and cellular biology Venkatesh Murthy, Schoonover read a paper by Sanes about following the day-by-day development of microscopic neuronal structures in a living mouse. “I was blown away,” he recalls. When he found out Sanes was coming to Harvard to open the Center for Brain Science, he immediately e-mailed to ask about joining the lab. They met, and Sanes welcomed him aboard. “He was very generous, and gave me a chance,” says Schoonover, who worked in the lab for the rest of his time at Harvard, even taking a semester off, funded by Sanes, to be there full-time. “If there was one person who launched me into a life of science, it was Josh,” he adds. “The time there convinced me that this was the right thing for me.”

Still, Schoonover deliberately concentrated in philosophy, thereby avoiding a raft of required science courses. “I knew there was a good chance that science would be my life in the future, but I did not see coursework as the means of getting there,” he explains. “In a lab you are asking questions; in the classroom, the main activity is to absorb knowledge and things that are already established. It’s a very different mindset. I found that I like getting my hands dirty.”

Today, in Randy M. Bruno’s lab at Columbia, Schoonover studies how the physical connections between neurons affect the flow of information in the brain. His area of specialization is the rat barrel cortex, where movements from the whiskers are registered: How does a neuronal circuit translate the movement of individual whiskers into a representation of the rat’s environment? In pursuit of an answer, Schoonover divides his time between live rats and the microscope, where he is working on a novel technique for identifying synapses, the connections between neurons. “It’s a fun surgery,” he says of the delicate two-hour operation he performs to insert electrodes that record neuronal activity in an anesthetized rat’s brain. A dentist drill is used to thin down the skull, then a square half a millimeter on the side is cut into the now paper-thin bone. Once the bone is removed, Schoonover peels away the dura mater, the one-tenth-of-a-millimeter-thick membrane surrounding the brain—all without touching or damaging the soft tissue underneath.

Now midway through his doctoral training, Schoonover says his current work focuses on where synapses are formed on the branches of individual neurons. “The spatial arrangement of synaptic connections on a neuron can strongly influence its electrical function. Thus, as for many other areas of biology, there is a tight relationship between structure and function,” he says. “The work contributes a tiny piece to the giant puzzle of looking at how synapses are arranged and transmit information.”


Schoonover is intent on explaining science; Portraits of the Mind was partly born from frustration with how inadequately scientific techniques—and science in general—are presented to the general public. The media often focus too much on results over process, he believes: “They get this final packaged story that has a weird, misleading ring of truth along the lines of ‘This is how things are,’ instead of, ‘We conclude this, based on circumstantial evidence that relies on these techniques that are more or less reliable.’ That’s how scientists actually communicate.” NeuWrite, the forum he co-founded at Columbia late in 2007 with biology department chair Stuart Firestein and then-graduate student Clay Lacefield, was set up to bring scientists and writers together to foster more accurate and enticing narratives. Portraits of the Mind was workshopped there, and several other book projects by members are pending, as well as a stream of mainstream science articles, including one on optogenetics coauthored by Schoonover published in the New York Times science section in May. The long-term plan is to scale up NeuWrite, Schoonover adds; a second, parallel, New York City-wide group is set to launch this fall and there is talk of starting a Boston counterpart.

Schoonover has been giving public presentations across the country and in Europe. He argues that dialogue is essential because American scientists serve, for the most part, at the discretion of the public, thanks to their government funding. “It is incumbent on us,” he adds, “to explain what we are doing.”

Read more articles by: Sarah Zhang

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