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Scientist-turned-artist Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya with the mural she completed in Washington, D.C., earlier this month

K. Dolan/Science

‘Impossible to ignore’: How a former neuroscientist and dancer is turning research into art

Across from a dog park in the heart of Washington, D.C., stands a striking, multicolored mural, in which two women reach for each other across a space teeming with variegated particles. The 23-meter-wide mural, inspired by the work of Duke University particle physicist Ayana Arce, who is Black, imagines women building bridges to each other, just as quarks that are unpaired after intense proton-proton collisions find other quarks. Scientist-turned-artist Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya finished the artwork this month; it is the second in a series planned for 10 U.S. cities highlighting the research of female scientists, in a project sponsored by the Heising-Simons Foundation.

Born in Atlanta to Thai and Indonesian immigrants, Phingbodhipakkiya knew she wanted both science and art to be integral to her life. After a life-changing accident derailed a blossoming dance career, she was driven to study neuroscience in college.

But after 4 years as a research assistant in an Alzheimer’s disease lab, she became keenly aware of how poorly scientists–herself included–communicate with the public. So she abandoned her Ph.D. ambitions to get a master’s degree in fine arts (MFA) at the Pratt Institute. Her decision launched a career in science-focused art and design, leading to a TED residency, museum exhibits, and projects that, she says, focus on “badass women in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math].”

As Phingbodhipakkiya worked on the Washington, D.C., mural, ScienceInsider spoke with her about her life and work.

Q: In high school, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A: I was a classically trained ballerina. I chose to go to college in New York so I could audition for [ballet and dance] companies at the same time as I was getting my formal education. The fall of my freshman year, I was in a really terrible skiing accident that ended my dance career. The doctor told me, “You’ll be lucky if you walk again.” As someone innately in touch with her body, I was shocked and bewildered by how out of control of my system was. I wanted to better understand what was happening to me. So I decided to study neuroscience.

Q: So you graduated from Columbia University with a degree in neuroscience and behavior. What happened next?

A: I was working in Yaakov Stern’s Alzheimer’s lab at Columbia for several years, thinking about doing a Ph.D. in neurobiology and behavior. But I never finished because of an incident I had with one subject [I was] running through the fMRI [functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner]. He got out and he was so excited. He said to me: “Hey, I want to share what I have done here and how I have contributed to science with family and friends. What do I tell them?” I just threw our paper at him, which was probably the worst thing I could have done. … I failed miserably at sharing our research with a broader audience. At that point I started looking for tools and strategies to try to better story-tell.

We also used to recruit patients by sending out really crappy long-form letters. I thought we might get more participation if we did something a little different. That’s where the impetus to look at design and art came from.

Engineer, physician, and astronaut Mae Jemison is one of the women scientists featured in Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya’s design project Beyond Curie.

Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya

When I announced that I was leaving the lab for my MFA everyone was shocked. But I knew that I needed to follow my instincts.

Q: Art and science are very different worlds. How do you bridge them?

A: Art and science are simply different facets of creativity for me. Each one is an iterative process that requires tremendous focus, resourcefulness, and perseverance. That spark of insight I felt doing research in a neuroscience lab is the same one I feel when I’m working on a new installation or mural.

Q: What led you to propose a mural series?

A: The Heising-Simons Foundation actually reached out to me—they had seen a portrait series I had created called Beyond Curie. Too often the conversation starts and ends with Marie Curie when there are so many other incredible [women] scientists that we should be highlighting and learning about. The foundation wanted to maybe collaborate because they have a priority now on creating pathways for women in STEM and especially women of color.

Q: Why did you propose murals rather than another medium?

Campfire, an interactive display by Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, was part of the scientist-turned-artist’s solo exhibit Connective Tissue in Las Vegas.

Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya

A: The power of murals is that they are impossible to ignore. They are too big and too bright and too dynamic. I wanted to put science squarely in society in a way that invites people into this incredible research. I love public art. It doesn’t sit behind gallery walls. It’s out there in the wild for anyone to enjoy. That’s really the approach we need to take with science and science literacy and science education and communication. Because so much of the time we’re in an echo chamber.

Q: Tell me about the mural in Washington, D.C.

A: With every mural, I sit down with my scientific collaborators and we have a first conversation. With Duke particle physicist Ayana Arce, I was struck in that conversation by the story that she used to describe proton collisions and subsequently the quarks that hurtle out of them. When protons collide and quarks go hurtling into space, there’s this incredible moment when nature provides almost like extra quarks—so they can be paired up. And I thought about when I have felt alone or adrift and in need of community, it’s usually women reaching their arms out to receive me and hold me and be in community with me. So that is the story that I wanted to tell with this mural: Women are the glue that holds society together.

And when I first talked to Ayana she had a yellow headband on, so yellow does feature prominently in the mural.

Q: What mural comes next?

A: The next, in San Carlos, is based on the research of [astrophysicist] Chung-Pei Ma at [the University of California,] Berkeley. She studies supermassive black holes. I am depicting women as illuminators in this mural, as the essential beings that tell us what is unseen.

If you have looked broadly at my work, it’s pretty clear that I am both an Asian American Pacific Islander and women in STEM activist. I look at my practice as making the invisible, visible. Whether I’m exploring microscopic worlds or the far reaches of outer space or the often unseen beauty and depth of marginalized communities, I think that is all connected.