Mixing Art with Science & Engineering - An Interview with Director of Microscopy Dee Breger

Published on Monday August 16, 2004

What did you do prior to coming to Drexel and how did you get involved in microscopy?

My major accomplishment was as founder and Manager of the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM)/X-Ray Microanalysis (EDX) Facility at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University's earth science research institute located in Palisades, N.Y. I started work at Lamont as a scientific illustrator just after receiving my B.S. degree in Art from the University of Wisconsin (Madison). I was fascinated by the "EM" (transmission electron microscope) down the hall and when its operator left I asked for, and eventually got, his job. I worked with this TEM for the next four years, until Lamont installed one of the first few SEMs purchased in the U.S. as soon as this technology became commercially available. I then worked with the SEM for ten years until founding the SEM/EDX Facility as an open center, and then managed that lab for over 20 years. During this time I began using my training in art to create media-quality SEM images. While specializing in electron microscopy at Lamont, I also worked in various capacities in several earth science research disciplines, served as Manager of Lamont's Microprobe Lab, and participated in about 25 expeditions around the world (mostly oceanographic), including 12 in the Antarctic. I'm affiliated with Liberty Science Center and the New York Hall of Science and have also been active for many years in public outreach on the personal level, both receiving visitors for lab demonstrations and going out to schools, libraries, nature clubs, bookstores, and professional societies with presentations on The Remarkable Microworld, Polar Oceanography, and Optimizing the Scientific Image.

What do you do as Director of Microscopy here at Drexel?

I train students and other users in SEM basic theory and hands-on operation of the instruments, keep the instruments and equipment functioning, update instrumentation, host and create public outreach activities, and continue promoting, now under my Drexel affiliation, media visibility for the microworld and the sciences it represents.

How do you blend the worlds of art & science/engineering? Do you think that there is a direct, natural correlation between art and science/engineering? What role do you think art should play in science/engineering and vice versa?

With my original training as an artist, the blend of art and science is a given. My work is centered in visual imagery, but each image derived from research tells all the stories the research is about. I think of my images as a kind of "bait and switch" game: aesthetically appealing images attract attention as no other scientific output can, thereby able to bring the cloistered world of science to an unfortunately science-intimidated public in an agreeable way. It's wonderful to watch people consequently relax enough to allow themselves some of the excitement and enjoyment of the sciences that we, working in research, feel ourselves. To this end, of stimulating the public imagination towards the sciences in general and engineering in particular, I feel that a good image is not good enough. A really striking image that has been created with attention not only to the aesthetics of composition, balance of lights and darks, etc., but also to optimum sample preparation, operation of the microscopes, and Photoshop post-processing (minimal for research, more for the public) will always tell any story with vastly more clarity and appeal. Optimized images also convey information between scientists better than poor or just-good-enough images, so there's very definitely a place for "art" (for lack of a better word) in science as well. Science and art are both creative activities, and can be highly complementary.

Do you hope to get students more involved in the kind of work you do here in the Department?

I would have said yes, absolutely, except that when I arrived at Drexel I found several very talented students here in the department who were already well along the same path (and no doubt there are others yet to be revealed). I continue to try to engender enthusiasm both for the research and for the imagery wherever I can, and students here, of course, constitute an inherently fertile territory for this. Many show an active interest in improving their microscopy techniques and in learning how to work with their images in Photoshop and eventually we'll be exploring these avenues in dedicated tutorials and seminars. One specific goal is to strive for increasing numbers of journal covers.

What changes/ideas do you have in mind for microscopy in the Department?

In addition to expanding the technical capabilities we can offer to the scientific community at large, we need to upgrade our sample preparation equipment and some of the supporting software. I'd like our presence in the new building to be a showcase: for visiting colleagues, funding agents, public groups, the media, and the companies whose instruments and equipment we use. One major goal is to ensure that all students and other users of the microscopes understand basic theory as well as operation so they can make informed and deliberate choices of technical parameters while they work. I intend their images and elemental analyses to be consistently standardized at the highest levels of quality-and truth. I'd like them to be very proud of their work-and to know why that pride is justified.

In what high profile/prestigious awards/honors, art shows, science/tech magazines, and/or books has your work been featured?

A collection of about 200 of my images is in my coffee-table book, Journeys in Microspace (Columbia University Press, 1995). Its companion book, Through the Electronic Looking Glass (Cygnus Graphic, 1995) presents 30 images in 3D stereo format, and I'm currently working on several more books and other major projects, some for adults, others for kids. In addition to editorial use, my work has been profiled in numerous magazines, books, websites, TV shows, etc., including the New York Times Magazine and a BBC documentary called Hidden Visions. My images have been shown in exhibitions including, among others, London, Berlin, Czechoslovakia, Kuala Lumpur, and New York, in corporate collections, and a major semi-permanent solo exhibition at Liberty Science Center. My work won the 2001 Whiting Memorial Award from the International Society for Philosophical Enquiry, and six of my images have won international prizes.

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