By Linnie Rawlinson for CNN
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Factory fitter, attack dog trainer and mountain climber -- perhaps not the typical background for a cutting edge scientist. But for Mark Lythgoe, a neurophysiologist who runs the Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging at University College London, an unconventional approach has allowed him to look at the science of the brain from a fresh perspective.
Lythgoe came to science later than most, after what he describes as a series of "appalling jobs." Following a diploma in radiography and an MSc in behavioral biology he gained a PhD from University College London in biophysics, where, he says, "I just fell in love with this world of science."
With his team, he develops magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques to study the brain, especially with regard to stroke and epilepsy damage in children. But as one of science's enfants terribles, his provocative thinking has challenged his peers to look to the arts for inspiration.
Lythgoe strongly believes that arts and sciences can form a strong symbiotic relationship that can lead to mutual enlightenment. Speaking to the British Neuroscience Association in 2004, he said, "Great art constitutes an open investigation into the human condition."
This approach has resulted in several collaborations with artists. He designed and curated London's Hayward Gallery's exhibition on Dan Flavin, "AfterImage," and has worked with the Liverpool Tate and the V&A. He has also forayed into theatre and film, and has studied the case of a former builder who became compelled to paint, draw and write following a stroke.
He's currently working on an installation with artist Georgia Chatzivasileiadi, and says, "We've been looking into a new optical illusion which works by shining a white light into a room. When you walk through the light you get a rainbow effect. The rainbow leaves a trace of different colored lights in the space that you've just left, so you're able to look at the motion of people or look at the passage of time in space."
Targeting stem cells
His conversations with artists have sparked off ideas that he's then researched. "For example," he says, "I was chatting to a friend who said, Why are you scientists so skinny? Is it because you think so much? This made me wonder if it's possible that neuronal activity actually warms up the brain. We've now started to investigate this: maybe when children have really strong epileptic fits, their brains heat up; possibly that causes the damage that they get several years down the line."
Lythgoe's approach has allowed him to remain unfettered by the traditional boundaries within science. He holds one of the UK's largest grants for interdisciplinary stem cell and engineering research, and explains, "We've been developing techniques to localize and target stem cells to sites of damaged blood vessels using magnets," an idea which again originated from conversations with colleagues in the arts.
Perhaps because he so nearly missed out on a career in science, Lythgoe is passionate about communicating its excitement to the masses. He has presented popular science television programs for the BBC amongst others, co-directed the Cheltenham Science Festival and contributed to "Science, not Art," a book which gave an insider's view on his day-to-day life as a scientist.
He describes his Damascus moment on entering the world of science: "All those hows, whys and wherefores that my mum had tried to explain to me via a combination of Mancunian folklore and Catholic religion were finally unraveled in front of me. I saw this world in the most incredible, wondrous and infinite detail and I absolutely just fell in love with the world around me."
Lythgoe came to science late; he is passionate about communicating its excitement to others