'Big Brains' calendar to feature artistically enhanced scans of campus mental power

URBANA – Calendars featuring attractive young college women – or, more recently, naked old folks – are staples on the bookstore shelves.

The University of Illinois chose to advertise its other assets.

The UI is putting out a 2006 calendar of the campus' "Big Brains," featuring artistically enhanced brain scans of campus administrators, faculty, staff and students. It is being produced by the Beckman Institute and is the idea of the associate director of its Biomedical Imaging Center, Tracey Wszalek, and a former colleague.

"The fun thing is an opportunity to (use) cutting edge technology ... to underscore what incredible brain power we have on this campus," Wszalek said. "It's a mix of being somewhat whimsical, with a nod to science and the things we do on this campus."

The 12 calendar models are having their brains scanned at the Biomedical Imaging Center. Paul Lauterbur, the UI's Nobel Prize-winning professor, developed the technology used in the scans – magnetic resonance imaging.

The images for each individual will highlight a particular brain region or function that person uses in his or her job.

"Some will show pure anatomy. Some will show areas of the brain that are active during different tasks. Some will show vasculature. Some will show the connections between different areas," Wszalek said.

For instance, the scan of Chancellor Richard Herman's brain will show the blood vessels to demonstrate how he is connected to all areas of campus, providing the support to keep them functioning.

The illustration for a food science professor will consist of images of different layers of her brain arranged in the shape of the food pyramid. The brain scan of a tradesman with the UI's Facilities & Services Division will highlight his cerebellum, which controls motor skills. The brain image of UI President B. Joseph White's assistant will emphasize the area used for multi-tasking.

A local graphic artist, Pat Mayer of Urbana, is using the scans to create an artistic interpretation of the brain function being demonstrated.

"I enjoy the challenge of trying to figure out how to make these medical images something you would like to hang on your wall," Mayer said. "You are really providing artwork for people's homes. It's trying to figure out how do I incorporate the science, how do I incorporate the personality of the person and make it something I'd like to hang on my wall."

Mayer is also photographing each person in his or her work environment, to appear with the brain images.

"You get an inside peek and an outside peek at the people," she said.

"Beckman has been great about not taking themselves overly seriously on this project," Mayer said. "They want to have fun with it."

Wszalek said all the calendar models were enthusiastic about the project.

"They are like kids in a candy shop because we let them take a picture home," she said. "Everyone loves a picture of their brain.

"We were teasing people, should we find they don't have the gray matter they thought they had, we could draw it in for them."

The calendar is expected to be in bookstores around Thanksgiving.

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