News Archive

posted 11/12/02

Media Contact:
Pierre Rioux, Whiting Fund Chair, (507) 434-1904 or

Micrographer's Blend of Artistry and Science Earns Major Award

HUDSON RIVER DIATOM: Diatom species that have adapted to life in brackish water are common in tidal estuaries, where salty marine water mixes with the fresh waters brought down to the sea by rivers. Since the Hudson River is swept by marine tides up to 35 miles north of New York City, it is officially considered an estuary below that boundary. This brackish water diatom was found buried in Hudson sediments near West Point by Lamont marine geologist and Queens College (NY) professor Cecilia McHugh, and determined by isotope age-dating techniques to have lived within the last forty years. Magnification ~ 1136X
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Dee Breger is a trained artist with a most unusual studio. Instead of brush, canvas or sculptor's clay, her creative environment has been dominated by dials and switches, cathode tubes and other high-tech components of something called a scanning electron microscope (SEM). Her subjects are not sweeping landscapes, human portraits or still life studies, but are instead images of a parallel universe that is around us unseen -- not in the metaphysical sense, but really unseen to the naked eye -- like ultramicroscopic objects and greatly enlarged close-ups of things common and uncommon, from microplankton to dust bunnies, yesterday's dandelion seeds to yesteryear's prehistoric pollen grains, volcanic ash to butterfly scales, in each case revealing fascinating imagery of things magnified and magnificent.

The remarkable three-dimensional quality of images produced on a scanning electron microscope (SEM) results from a subatomic process in which an electron beam is projected down through a stack of electromagnetic lenses onto a specially-prepared specimen located in a chamber below. A detector captures electrons ejected from the sample's surface by the impact and converts them into a faithfully recreated image on a screen or monitor, which is recorded photographically or digitally. Unlike the photons of visible light, electrons do not convey color and create images images solely in black and white. Electron images can then be colorized, usually by computer, in a separate process.

This isn't art just for art's sake. Rather, Dee Breger has dedicated her career to blending the best of two worlds, using art to advance science and education, and science to create art. In recognition of the contributions to both these worlds, Breger was recently honored to receive the 2002 Whiting Memorial Award from the International Society for Philosophical Enquiry (ISPE). The award consists of a significant grant and a crystal plaque noting her contributions to both worlds of science and art.

Dee Breger has devoted her entire career to the art and science of electron microscopy. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in art from the University of Wisconsin, and immediately found an opportunity to combine her training in art with her love for science. Her first job was as scientific illustrator at what is now known as the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University's world-class Earth science research institute in Palisades, New York. Her subsequent work initially involved taking two-dimensional-appearing images captured through a transmission electron microscope (TEM).

Today Breger works as manager of Lamont's Scanning Electron Microscope Facility, using top-of-the-line equipment capable of producing views of ultramicroscopic objects with a crisp, clear, three-dimensional quality. In this capacity, Breger has worked with over 225 scientists and graduate students from around the world, representing disciplines ranging from climatology to archaeology to medical research.

Images recorded through her work have helped advance scientific understanding though countless studies and cutting edge research projects. They have been published individually in dozens of scientific journals and books, and have been used to illustrate many scientific presentations in classrooms and on television. Breger has collected images in two book of her own: Journeys in Microspace: The Art of the Scanning Electron Microscope (1995, Columbia University Press), and Through the Electronic Looking Glass: 3D Images from a Scanning Electron Microscope (1995, Cygnus Graphic). She also collaborated with co-authors T. Saito and P.R. Thompson on a major academic atlas featuring her work, Systematic Index of Recent and Pleistocene Planktonic Foraminifera (1981, Tokyo University Press).

Dee Breger's first responsibility is to the scientific community, and she demands that her images "represent the highest achievements in technical operation of the microsope. Grounded in the discipline of scientific research, I must also seek to maintain the integrity-the truth-of the specimens."

But the artist in Breger also recognizes the awe-inspiring beauty in these images beyond their value to enlighten the scientific community, and wants them "to speak to the viewer's heart." She has used their power to captivate and inspire a much wider audience, those she describes as a "science-shy public." Her presentations reach out to people intimidated by science, using the aesthetics of her images to introduce them and, she hopes, inspire them to a greater interest in the scientific world.

"I find it captivating," says Breger, "that grand tales are told by the minutest of forms and patterns that nature never expected us to witness. In conducting my slide presentations to kindergartners, senior citizens, and all ages in between, I recognize the same excited response to these random bits of knowledge that I feel myself." Nothing gratifies her more than to hear, after one of these presentations, a young school child say "The pictures are cool! When I grow up I might want to be a scientist just like you."

Dr. Pierre Rioux, a clinical psychiatrist at the Mayo Health System in Minnesota, vice president of ISPE and Whiting Fund Chairman, nominated Dee Breger for the award. "Her work has been instrumental," said Dr. Rioux, "in advancing the work of research scientists, as well as helping to bring the fruit of these discoveries to a larger public.

Such dissemination is crucial to increasing the flow of information within the community of scholars, and integrating it into the public domain, thus accelerating the impact of new scientific developments. Her work is unique as it easily finds a home within scientific arenas, but its startling visual presence also achieves artistic merit."

The International Society for Philosophical Enquiry is an institute for advanced studies, original research, and high achievement. Founded in 1974 by Dr. Christopher Harding of Queensland, Australia, it is a non-profit global scientific-philosophical society that encourages societal and cultural enrichment and advancement, and whose membership is among the top 99.9 IQ percentile, corresponding with an IQ of 153 or higher. ISPE has members in thirty-three countries and territories.

The Whiting Memorial Award commemorates ISPE's first president, Steve Whiting. Recent recipients of the Award include Alexandra York, president of the ART Foundation in New York, and the Alcuin Society in Canada, which promotes book development and book arts, and The Friends of William Stafford, a literacy-through- poetry advocacy group.