March 31, 2011

Building a Brain

Tiny spheres, hundreds of them packed together like an aquarium full of golf balls, appear on the computer screen. Spidery veins of colour sprout from two or three of the top balls, branching out like tree limbs reaching for the sun.

“It’s really neat for people to see this and think: wow, that’s in my brain,” says Crystal Hanley, who is currently in her second year in the architecture program at Carleton and has a contract working for the neuroscience lab at the University of Ottawa.

She designed and created the 3D digital model displayed on the screen; she drags and drops the image to show different angles of the microscopic glimpse inside our skulls.

She’s combined the seemingly unrelated fields of neuroscience and architecture by working to provide the visual representation for the professors’ research. After offering to volunteer for a few projects with architecture professor Dr. Stephen Fai last year, he offered her a job for the summer.

Her task would be to make neurodegenerative processes into something that people could wrap their head around.

Initially, Hanley says she was intimidated at the thought of learning pages of scientific jargon with no science background to refer to. But, she says she has come so far and is pleased she has continued with the project.

It’s really neat for people to see this and think: wow, that’s in my brain

Working with the researchers at the University of Ottawa, Hanley has turned the traditional, flat illustrations and complex data into aesthetically pleasing 3D digital images and videos that look similar to the animations featured in National Geographic documentaries.

The idea is to make the concept easier for the ‘average joe’ and scientists to visualize.

Interestingly, adding numerous scientific terms to her vocabulary wasn’t the hardest part of the project, or what she’s most proud of so far. Instead, she says learning to navigate and use the Maya 3D animation imaging software was the most challenging.

This job has really opened doors for her, she says, both in terms of professional contacts and in the practical application of the intensive 3D software that is becoming widely popular within the architecture world.

As a child, she says she would draw houses lining streets, taping on additional pages to gradually build a neighbourhood. Each house would be different. “No cookie cutter houses,” she says.

This individuality has stuck with her. She may have returned to Carleton as a mature student, but the 31-year-old doesn’t look out of place amid her younger peers.

With straight, boldly-cut black hair, a collar-bone piercing and painted-black fingernails, she says it’s important to “really just put yourself out there.”

Hanley says that the professors at Carleton are great, and that if students show interest and promise, then professors will go out of their way to help them out.

Hanley says that one thing she loves about architecture is that it combines hard science and creativity; the image on the computer screen in front of her being a perfect example.

“It’s a balance,” she says, “Everything I’ve learned outside of architecture I can apply to architecture.”

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