At the Tampa Bay Businesses for Culture and the Arts benefit Thursday night, Dr. Juan Sanchez-Ramos delivered a speech about the marriage of art and science that was so fascinating, emcee and WFTS-Ch. 28 personality Lissette Campos described him as "scary smart." • Smart? Sanchez-Ramos has earned both a doctorate and medical degree from the University of Chicago. The youthful-looking 66-year-old University of South Florida neurology professor holds the Helen Ellis Endowed Chair for Parkinson's Research at USF and also serves as director of a center that specializes in research in Huntington's Disease. • Scary? The man can draw a picture of a brain with both hands — at the same time. He says it's easy because he's learned how to integrate both sides of his brain. You see, in addition to his groundbreaking research in the field of movement disorders, Sanchez-Ramos is an accomplished artist working under the name "Zeno." • Sanchez-Ramos recently shared with Times columnist Ernest Hooper how he journeyed from artist to graduate student to doctor, and why the arts are more important than ever in our education.
How did you start at the University of Chicago as a premed student and end up in Europe working as an artist?
I started off in premed because that's what everybody expected. My father was a doctor, my older brother was studying medicine, my father's two brothers were doctors and I had cousins who were doctors. Everybody just assumed I would follow in the family business. In my second year, I began to have doubts. I was 19 and resented the fact that everyone expected me to do this when my real talent was in drawing, in painting. There was a professor at the University of Chicago, Virgil Burnett, and I really liked how he drew and I began to take his classes. I told my father in my junior year that I wouldn't be going to medical school, I wouldn't be going to grad school, I would be going to art school. He had a natural reaction and said I wouldn't be able to make a living and I would die of starvation. But eventually, he agreed to support me for a year in Europe. He liked the idea of me attending the Fine Arts School of Paris, so I lived in Paris and had income. While other artists were counting pennies, my father sent me a check every month. I waited a year to apply, but there were national strikes and student strikes in Paris in 1968, and the school of fine arts wasn't taking applications. I asked if he could support me for another year and he said, "The deal is done. You'll have to do without." He thought I would immediately go to med school, but I spent another three years in Europe. … It was a normal period of adolescence.
You eventually find your way back to the University of Chicago and start studying pharmacology. Why pharmacology?
I came to realize that the next best thing to being an artist was being a student. The freest people I met were either artists or students. When I was 25, I decided to apply to graduate school. I did not want to go to medical school, but I thought I would be a good pharmacologist. I was hanging around a lot of artists who were taking hallucinogens. I wasn't ingesting these things, but I thought it would be really interesting to see how LSD and other drugs affect the brain's neuroconscious and their artwork.
You've mentioned a lot of professors and mentors who have helped you along the way, including a University of Chicago professor named Bob Schuster.
He was my godfather of science. He helped me move from being an artist to a scientist because in the 1930s, he was a jazz musician in Philadelphia and he liked the fact that I came from an artistic background. Without him I don't think I could have come to where I am now.
How has being an artist helped you?
It has to do to with seeing things in a different dimension. When you work really up close in the lab, you have to step back and see how the parts relate to the whole. A lot of the work requires visualization of things that are invisible. Autoradiography and immunohistochemistry allows us to see fibers of brain cells that we can't see with just a microscope. When you stain it with dyes, you see it. You can visualize the fine fibers you normally don't see. With immunohistochemistry, the antibodies tagged with a bright fluorescent dye add that to the tissue and creates glowing shapes and forms. The images that I see are so beautiful, that inspires me to draw them out. The science influences the art, the art influences the science. They each influence each other. The art allows you to see things you can't see, then you can understand, then you can explain and manipulate. The science we use in immunohistochemistry is very similar to the science an artist uses to make prints. There's an art to the science. There's a method to the science that involves craftsmanship in the lab.
How do you respond when you hear people debate that we need more emphasis on science and technology and less on the arts?
If they abolish art education because of economic crunches, they're going to impair our creativity and innovation. The visual arts and other arts are important because they become very useful for scientific investigation. We can only understand one by understanding the other. What art allows you to do is integrate all the parts into a whole. You see how all the parts fit into a whole.
You seem to be telling more people about your art.
Early on, some professors told me, "Don't tell anyone you're an artist, they won't take you seriously." But now that I'm older, I'm letting my art side come out more. I think it's inspiring to the students. I spoke to a group of honor students and one said she was going to give up piano but now she's going to continue her piano lessons. I'm constantly encouraging students to continue pursuing their artistic abilities.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.