IOWA Magazine | 10-17-2022

Iowa Neuroscientist and Painter Explores the Beauty of Biology

3 minute read
Inspired by her work in the lab, an Iowa researcher creates artwork that graces the cover of scientific journals.
Pain Brain COURTESY KATHLEEN SLUKA This multimedia collage uses brain images and text from published studies by pain scientists.

Inside Kathleen Sluka’s home painting studio, big bay windows overlook a country pond not far from an apple orchard. While it’s an idyllic setting for an artist, what really gets Sluka’s creative neurons firing isn’t the Iowa landscape. It’s the aesthetics of neurons themselves.

A University of Iowa neuroscientist and physical therapist, Sluka spends her time outside of work in this rural retreat painting scenes usually only visible through a microscope. Her subjects include treelike neural networks, shimmering brain waves, and other biological marvels inspired by her career as a professor and researcher.

Kathleen Sluka PHOTO: UI HEALTH CARE Professor Kathleen Sluka

“My goal is to portray cells in a really pleasing manner so people understand the beauty of science—and the importance of science,” says Sluka, a professor of physical therapy and rehabilitation science, neuroscience, and pharmacology.

Sluka took art classes as a kid growing up in New York and New Jersey, where her parents encouraged her to explore her artistic abilities alongside her passion for science. When the time came for college, however, she embarked on a career path in medicine. Sluka studied physical therapy at Georgia State University in Atlanta and earned a PhD in anatomy at the University of Texas Medical Branch before ultimately settling in Iowa City as an assistant professor in 1996. Today, she runs the Neurobiology of Pain Laboratory, which researches new treatments for people suffering from chronic pain.

While painting took a backseat to raising a family and her demanding career, Sluka picked up her paintbrush again about a decade ago. To destress from work, she began taking online art classes, watching YouTube videos, and reading books on technique. “It finally dawned on me that, when everybody says paint what you know, well I’m a scientist, I should paint science,” Sluka says. “A lot of the ideas I have come to me when I’m sitting here reading papers or talking with students or going to talks.”

Working with acrylic paints and mixed-media materials—including collaging scientific papers—Sluka often explores the nervous system and pain-related disease. Her paintings have been featured on the cover of more than 15 scientific journals in recent years, including the publication for the International Association for the Study of Pain, where she serves as an editor. Sluka also drew the illustrations for the textbook she authored titled Pain Mechanisms and Management for the Physical Therapist, and she’s currently painting new artwork for an updated edition. As Sluka has gained more confidence with her brush, she’s begun taking commissions, selling prints, and exhibiting her work through UI Hospitals & Clinics’ Project Art and at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting.

“Art has become as much a part of who I am as being a scientist is part of my identity,” says Sluka. “I feel that I’m an artist and a scientist.”

So much for left-brained versus right-brained.

Check out more of Sluka’s art and journal covers at her website, Cells of Life.

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