In our sixth excursion into the overlap between science and art we meet Eva Pillai, a postdoc in Kristian Franze’s lab at the University of Cambridge.
Where are you originally from and what do you work on now?
I’m from Malaysia and am currently working with Kristian Franze at the University of Cambridge. Here I study the interplay of mechanical and chemical signalling in connecting the nervous system during development. More specifically, I study how axons that originate in the eye respond to chemical and mechanical cues in their environment that help guide their growth towards the visual part of the brain.
Has science always been an important part of your life?
When growing up, I didn’t really know that being a scientist was an option! In fact, I did an Engineering degree before Biology lured me in with its wondrous questions on how life forms and functions. I have always been curious and wanted to know how and why things are the way they are; most children are scientists at heart, guess I never really grew out of that?
And what about art ?
As a kid I loved mixing colours to make ‘new’ ones and doodling (to date, most of my textbooks, papers, and notebooks have doodle-filled margins :p). I don’t have any formal training or education in art. However, rather randomly in the final year of high school I decided to take an art GCSE, it ended up being a fun independent study experience. Since grad school I’ve had a more consistent relationship with art and try to learn a new technique every year.
What or who are your artistic inspirations?
Yayoi Kusama – one could simply disappear in her art! Bill Harris (our previous head of department) – his art hangs in our corridors and sometimes when the going gets tough, I wander out to stare at them and remember how beautiful neurons and the visual system are! And Abhishek Singh – his fabulous depictions of Vedic texts are incredible!
How do you make your art?
It depends on the technique I am playing with. I love mixing my media and enjoy a variety of art forms.
Painting is my spontaneous medium, I allow my hands and eyes to work without thinking or planning. This is the go-to medium in weeks of super structured/planned lab work, it brings me some flow.
Lino-printing is another favourite technique. Printing however relies on some planning and drafting/sketching before I jump into carving the lino. I seem to print more when my work week is less structured (2020 resulted in quite a lot of prints :p).
Does your art influence your science at all, or are they separate worlds?
At present, they are separate worlds that complement each other. While I have illustrated pieces for others science, I feel too close to my current research project to make an art piece of it. Having said that, I rely on my “art eyes” to communicate science, particularly in breaking down complex ideas through simple visual representations. Art practise also trains one to be more observant and detailed, traits that are very handy in the lab!
I rely on my “art eyes” to communicate science
What are you thinking of working on next?
Science-wise, I’m excited to be back in the lab catching up on experiments that couldn’t be done in 2020. I’m also figuring out what I want to work on next. Art-wise, I plan to shift from a 2D to 3D system by trying out clay this year!
Eva’s lino prints
We’re looking for new people to feature in this series throughout the year – whatever kind of art you do, from sculpture to embroidery to music to drawing, if you want to share it with the community just email email@example.com (nominations are also welcome!).