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Brain science and cat art: The passions of Agnes Bodor


As a kid, Agnes Bodor had a few unusual interests.

“I was really crazy about books about illnesses, you know, images of skin rashes and things like that,” Agnes said.

One day she spotted a small microscope in a store window, and longed to have it. That was unrealistic, considering that her family was poor and living under the Communist government in Hungary. But one day, a family friend with no children of his own stopped by Agnes’s house, and presented her with a small box.

“So I got it for Christmas,” Agnes said.

“And then I was putting everything into that microscope, little fingernail pieces and anything you can find. If anyone cut their finger accidentally, I’d run for a drop of blood. I was completely crazy for it.”

As the years wore on, Agnes would eventually put away her kiddie microscope in favor of the real thing. These days, she works with six bathroom-sized transmission electron microscopes, as a neuroanatomist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science.

She maps the neural circuitry in tiny slices of mouse brain, one 2,500th the thickness of a piece of paper. They’re so tiny they have to be manipulated with an eyelash (some people prefer pig eyelashes, she says, but a human baby’s eyelash may be the best).

Neuroscience has been a passion for Agnes most of her life. But lately, she has another interest on her mind.

Cat’s Out Of The Bag

“I really love cats,” she said. “I really love their aesthetics. Their body is just beautiful, how they move. Everything is just beautiful.”

Agnes doesn’t just admire cats: She paints them. She is a serious cat artist. Her walls hang with dozens of watercolors, the cats’ bodies diffuse and fuzzed out, culminating in these sharp, expressive little feline faces.

“I really love dogs too, but there are dogs I don’t like … but with cats, I probably love all of them.”

Agnes says she spends her day job trying to visually pick out structures from jumbles of neurons on a screen. The knack for doing that, she says, has something in common with how she makes art.

“You cannot really think about it. Because if you think, you’d definitely screw it up,” she said.

Art And Science

Agnes has made room in her life for these twin pursuits for years. But lately, she’s been thinking more and more about just one of them. She even set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for a new lifestyle.

“I wanted to go down to the desert for at least six months and just paint. But I completely gave up on that, because nothing happened,” she said.

The fundraising hasn’t been very productive so far, and her lab job demands a lot of her time. So for now she’ll devote herself to both pursuits -- the paintbrush and the eyelash, the cat face and the mouse brain.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.