Dhru Deb: Parallel thinking in the studio and the laboratory

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Dhru Deb has both feet firmly planted in the laboratory and the studio. Much of his work draws heavily from Abstract Expressionism (for reasons he’ll explain below) while other aspects gets inspiration from his South Asian heritage. He’s a proud New Yorker, something we firmly support.

Can you give us some of your professional and artistic background?

I grew up and went to college in India. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Biotechnology with Chemistry and Microbiology double minors. They laid the basic foundation of all the tools and techniques we can utilize in biomedical research. Right about that time, in silico Biology was gaining momentum in the scientific communities around the world. So, I chose to pursue a Master’s degree in Bioinformatics.

Applying some of the tools of Bioinformatics and combining them with Network Theory, I worked at the Indian Institute of Science for a short amount of time. This gave me the taste of the data analyst life. Being sure that I wanted to continue higher studies, I pursued a PhD program in Cancer Research at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, TX. I believe the training there shaped my scientific research process around hypothesis, specific aims and clinical translation. At this point I was happy with my scientific training. But, I always craved to learn art in a more rigorous way like my friends did in art schools.

So after writing my PhD thesis dissertation, I put myself through art school. I finished my Bachelor’s degree in Illustration with Honors from the University of Hertfordshire, UK, last year. Towards the end of my PhD and throughout my time in art school, I collaborated and connected with many like-minded people who pursue both science and art on a daily basis. This led to establishing “Cancer ART-SCI Network”, a community to unite cancer researchers, artists, patients, survivors, healthcare professionals and caregivers.

At the same time, as the Section Editor for “Art and Cancer” in Leonardo journal from MIT Press, I was able to help document projects from all around the world in the form of peer-reviewed publications. Each of these projects showed how diving into art helped advance the scientific research on cancer. Currently, I work as a Research Scientist at the Columbia University and on my own time, I volunteer for projects related to cancer research and visual art. I live and work in New York City.

Why did you begin incorporating science and art?

On a professional level, it’s a lot of fun to draw in creative tools and techniques from these seemingly disconnected disciplines while solving complex problems. On a personal level, I always wanted to practice both science and art, in parallel. I didn’t want either of them to become my profession while the other was reduced to a mere hobby.

“Strange attractor of cancer in its phase space”, watercolor on paper, adobe illustrator, printed on canvas 24″ x 24″ © Dhru Deb 2015

You have projects where art inspires science and others where science inspires art. Can you discuss the subtle differences between the two approaches?

In the projects where art inspires science, thinking and practicing through visual art processes help me to come up with multiple hypotheses. Each of these hypotheses, looks at the same problem, but from a different perspective. Even within one hypothesis, I can think about approaching the problem from several avenues. This leads to establishing specific aims to test the hypothesis later in the scientific lab.

Art projects, specifically the ones that use abstract expressionist techniques, are excellent tools for this. Abstraction allows free and parallel thinking not bound by preconceived line, shape, form, texture or color. It pushes me to think about high-risk hypotheses. In addition, while writing grants, this helps immensely with formulating the sections on alternative approaches and risks. In a way, although I can hypothesize a part of the end product, i.e. the answer to a scientific question, the focus remains on how to find it. I don’t know the full answer until I find it.

On the other hand, the projects where science inspires art, helps me to take the scientific information and ask – what else I can do with this! Based on how I utilize that scientific information in art projects, it appeals to a specific target audience.

Each art project, inspired by scientific information, becomes a new form of science communication via visual art. In this case, I don’t like to leave the audience with just questions, but provide them at least one definite answer. For the same reason, here, I have a solid vision on how the product, i.e. the artwork would look like. No matter what process I choose to incorporate in making it, I already know the answer I’m providing to the audience.

“The solution in intermittency”, acrylic on canvas, 30″ x 40″ © Dhru Deb 2015

Getting more specific, cancer plays a major role in your scientific and artistic life. Can you discuss its importance and how you try to incorporate it and its unpredictability into your work?

It all comes down to one purpose – I want to help cancer patients to live longer and better. I think my training with Dr. John Minna at UT Southwestern largely shaped my scientific philosophy. No matter how and what science I do, it must translate to clinics for the benefit of cancer patients. My current advisor, Dr. Tal Danino at Columbia University, is a bioengineer and artist himself.

In addition to working on lung cancer projects in the lab there are always opportunities for me to be involved in scientific outreach via art, often organizing collaborative events for the benefit of cancer patients. This patient focused philosophy connects to art on another level – art provides a creative outlet for the cancer patients.

Recently, I had a volunteer opportunity to shoot an online video for lung cancer patients of the LUNGevity Foundation with motivation and instruction for creating mixed media artworks at their home even during COVID-19 lockdown. It really made my day when the patients started sharing the artworks on the theme of healing their lungs they made at home after watching my video!

The uncertainty in the mind of the patients, researchers and caregivers comes from several unknown factors about cancer. But, being involved with both science and art paves a helpful and soothing path to tackle this uncertainty in our own unique way.

Can you compare the artistic process with the scientific one? How are they different? Similar?

In general, the largest similarity between these two is that both science and art are very creative disciplines. So you can often take one tool from one discipline and apply into another. For example, when stuck in a place of scientific research, I like to use mind mapping and divergent thinking techniques from visual art to come up with new ideas to tackle the obstacles.

Similarly, whenever possible I try to maintain detailed documentation of the art making process in a way a scientist would maintain a lab notebook. This process is crucial for reproducibility and building or improving upon existing artistic techniques. There is no set answer to how they are different as it varies a lot based on the scope of the project.

Do you ever look at slides and suddenly see them aesthetically?

Ha Ha! No, I don’t think it happens like that. For my own presentation slides, I try to apply design principles such as gaze, focal point, rule of thirds, etc. to visually emphasize the main scientific message of a slide. For other people’s slides, if I see an aesthetic presentation, I try to identify which design principles they used throughout their presentation and I make sure I congratulate the presenters in the end. When I see not-so-aesthetic slides, I stay patient and ask polite questions to narrow down and understand the main message. I remember that not everyone has the interest or skillsets of making visually aesthetic slides and not all audience members appreciate aesthetics. I even came across certain audience members who believed that visually aesthetic slides try to hide a scientifically dumb content!

© Dhru Deb

What does science offer art and vice versa?

New ideas, new tools and techniques. Essentially, they help us to break down the traditional disciplinary barriers.

What is the role of the scientist in society?

Finding new things is for our own fun. But for the society we have three main roles: 1) build trust with people who are science-deniers, 2) persuade people who are stakeholders to make an informed decision, and, 3) share the excitement with general audience through simple examples on how science provides hope to solve complex problems that plague mankind.

© Dhru Deb

What are you working on now?

Like every scientist and artist, there are several projects I’m working on right now. But, I will mention the one that combines cancer research and visual art in the perspective of New York City neighborhoods. Our lab is interested in finding new bacterial toxins that can eliminate cancer. My undergrad student and I collected samples from around 30 locations in Manhattan and after isolating several bacteria from them we found some very promising candidates.

In collaboration with another Research Scientist, we found that one of the bacteria was able to eliminate several types of cancer cells in a small amount and in a dose dependent way. We want to find out how these bacteria are able to do so. In parallel, we are creating bio-artworks using these bacteria retaining their neighborhood information. It’s fascinating when you think about – why bacteria from certain neighborhoods of Manhattan are more potent in eliminating cancer cells than that from other neighborhoods.

In a dynamic city like New York did it just happen by chance or is there a deeper connection to the history of these neighborhoods, the culture, the people and how they modify their surroundings? We want to further characterize and extend this project to all five boroughs. I’m very excited about this project as ultimately, I’m a cancer researcher by day, a visual artist by night and a New Yorker at heart!

For more information about Dhru Deb visit his website.


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