Research Director

Laboratory of Experimental Epistemology

Advanced Program of Neurosciences
Advanced Program of Contemporaneous Culture
Graduate Program of History of Sciences and Techniques and Epistemology
Federal University of Rio de Janeiro . Rio de Janeiro . Brazil

ABOUT MAIRA FRÓES                       
Graduated in Biological Sciences (Biomedicine - Biophysics) from the State University of Rio de Janeiro (1988), Master of Sciences (Biophysics) at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (1992) and PhD in Biological Sciences (Biophysics), Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (1997). Postdoc Scholar at Collège de France (Chaire de Neuropharmacologie) in 1999. Associate Professor at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro since 1998 (Assistant Prof. from 1996 to 1998). Formal training and experience in Biophysics and Cell Biology, with emphasis on Cellular Neurobiology. Leader investigations in basic experimental science cover gap junctional intercellular communication in neuronal and glial arrays and neural development. After five years of partial retreat of my activities in basic research (2003-2007), I have turned my intellectual emphasis and production mostly to an original Art/Science interface, settled up onto both experimental and epistemological grounds. I am presently the Coordinator of the interdisciplinary group Anatomy of Passion, founder and head of the corresponding Laboratory of Experimental Epistemology, co-founder and staff-member of the Laboratory of Cellular Neuroanatomy, co-founder of the Rio SfN Chapter, member of the Head Committee of the Advanced Program in Neuroscience, tenured professor of the Graduate Program in History of Sciences and Techniques and Epistemology, associate researcher of the Program of Contemporaneous Advanced Culture, at the Forum of Science and Culture, and member of the transdisciplinary program Space Alexandria (Dean of Graduate Studies and Research PR-2), all Institutional entities and/or Research Program of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
Area: Interdisciplinary: Neuroscience, Art, Epistemology.


BACKGROUND For the first decade since reaching a final position at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro during conclusion of my PhD, by the end of the nineties, my investigative fronts concentrated in intercellular communication and developmental neuroscience. Formal training, formal thoughts lead to a period of intense battle with low cost and creative methodologies to approach the hypothesis that low resistance pathways between neural cell types, including neurons and glial cells, were co-players in neural circuit formation and early brain development in model rodents. Papers in specialized journals, invited reviews, many participation in scientific meetings, organization and coordination of national and international courses, graduate students formation in traditional Master and PhD Programs, marked this period, as expected for regular choices in the scientific scenario.

THE EMERGENCE OF AN ARTSCI PROPOSAL The last five years, nevertheless, were definitely marked with the consolidation and expression of a turning point in my intellectual and research interests. What one would arguably classify as a new sight to science has its roots on strong personal experiences in my private life, together with some remarkable lessons extracted from mine and lab colleagues joint efforts in reductionist science.  Ahead of a mounting developmental neuroscience laboratory, my direct involvement with undergraduate teaching of human functional anatomy of the ear and speech systems to students in Phonoaudiology, since the early 2000s, was marked by two apparently non-related, albeit worth noting, evidences: the great difficulties imposed by complex technical, descriptive scientific objects and the conflicting (usually hidden) emotional link between the scientific object and the individual, specially experienced in the day-by-day of the multiuser Laboratory of Anatomy, at my institute, when practical classes are developed onto human pieces, in my case including more or less preserved faces.

It gradually turned out for me that both cognitive and non-cognitive brain processes, the latter in the category of human rejected resources of scientific methodological foreground, were in fact indelibly linked to growth of science as a knowledge field. These undergraduate laboratory tours became a metaphor of the human condition in science, in that cognitive, and hypothetically also, affective-emotional processes might have much more to do in conceptual creation, apprehension and theoretical/experimental evaluation in science than ever assumed. I did not fully realize, in these early years, I had been driven towards a new critical platform for the consideration of the epistemological and ontological basis that presumably ground science. From a field of truth findings to a field of argued consensual creations, science was re-meant for me. A point of no return.

Boosted by the reconceptualization of the meaningfulness of scientific knowledge, by the end of 2007, I decided to create an inter- (rather trans) disciplinary team, called Anatomy of Passion, a poetic reference to the human nature of science (, and the corresponding Laboratory of Experimental Epistemology.   The hypothesis claimed by my group, including neuroscientists, a team of academic and independent contemporaneous artists, researchers from humanities, engineers and philosophers, is that aesthetical valorization, and even redefinition of science paradigms would lead to optimization of cognitive handling in science, as expressed as scientific conception and intellectual insight. We have began to address this possibility both theoretically as well as experimentally, by electing one of our biological sensory apparatus as model system, in a convenient attempt to explore the filters that mediate our perception of the objective world and of the objective science, while in themselves sources for reflecting about the undeniable individual, subjective character of sensorial experience.  

The intricate anatomical organization of the human auditory system, from its peripheral stations to central nervous system associative areas, was the scientific object of choice in many theoretical and all experimental fronts held by the group during these first four years. The emerging hypothesis was that subjective access and qualification of the perceptual experience and signification would be fostered or emphasized by direct artistic interference on anatomical aesthetics. Moreover, that morphofunctional appreciation and problematization would be favored this way. With such a hypothetical ground in hand, I was faced with the challenge of re-creating a referential collection in ear anatomy, comprised of both concrete objects and conceptual figures strongly framed and/or conceived with artistic impregnation, as to establish a model system for testing our cognitive handling in human functional anatomy. Our claims concerning the putative benefits of artsci combination could be addressed experimentally.

Our last years were, therefore, marked by a great effort to create an almost complete collection of artsci experimental pieces (by the end of 2011, summing up around 50 individual and series of artsci pieces), tooling us up with a new laboratory and a new paradigm for human cognitive evaluation, in which a metaphor of cognition, as applied to science, turns out to be the investigative object of choice. Post-mortem anatomical pieces of the human auditory system were contextualized in contemporaneous artistic anatomy. For such, a fundamental step was the development of novel technoartistic illumination tools, based on LEDs, negro lights and tungsten microlamps by Alan Verissimo Azambuja (corresponding technical international publication in course of preparation) applied to an innovative exploration of biological tissue transparency developed by the group, taking advantage of light incidence and photography imaging studies. Our collection also includes anatomical preparations, sculptures and sculptural supports for anatomical positioning of biological pieces, anatomical design, video art, techno art, and artistic photography, software development for experimental perception (audiovisual pseudosynesthesia evaluation – in course), poetics (literary and musical), scenography projects and particular scenotechnical solutions, digital 3D design and performance, all centered in human audition at anatomical and neurobiological standpoints.

In 2007, the Institute of Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program of Morphological Sciences, to which I was credited as researcher and advisor since 2000, declared non textually my withdrawal, claiming my new research interests and my production were not technically and conceptually fitted to the excellence criteria advocated by the graduate program. The remaining two students I had under shared-advisory at this moment had their academic doctoral (2009) and master conclusions unaffected (2008).  In two consecutive rounds (between 2008 and 2009), selected artsci fronts were contemplated by emerging Institute of Biomedical Sciences grant programs, in the categories of outreach and graduate relevant activities. The investment in my interdisciplinary research into the limits of my Institute emptied out, and this also included my own proactive movement out of its walls.   

Our artsci initiatives have then been gradually displaced from the Institute of Biomedical Sciences, gaining intercentric academic collaborators and students, accompanied by increasing local academic, regional and national recognitions, as attested by more than eight thousand accessions to web material of the group (from lectures and interviews to exhibitions and art pieces; refer to ANATOMIA DAS PAIXÕES as keyword), together with several articles in magazines as exemplified by Scientific American Brain and Mind (Brazilian edition Aug 2009 and 2011), online journals, printed national circulation newspapers, interviews and native language national research publications, contributions to international neuroscience congresses and interdisciplinary meetings. During this while, our group productions have been stamped by broaden interdisciplinary programs and institutions, in UFRJ and beyond, as evidenced by my present affiliations (refer to Summary above) and attested by national grants provided by the Ministries of Education and Culture (PROEXT 2010), CAPES and CNPq 2011 (for participation in international congress) and by university outreach programs (PIBEX/PR-2/UFRJ 2009, 2010, 2011). Culminating these interdisciplinary and intercentric expansion, my affiliation as a permanent member of the interdisciplinary Graduate Program of History of Sciences and Techniques and Epistemology, a joint Program involving the Centers of Technology, Math and Natural Sciences and Philosophy and Human Sciences, with two master and two doctoral graduate students under my advisory from March 2010 on, whose theses converge to art and/or science epistemology.    

This laborious phase involved 26 undergraduate scholar students from Fine Arts to Engineer, from Biophysics to Chemistry, under my direct academic advisory and institutional responsibility, for instance co-oriented by colleagues in the corresponding fields of origin. Students were trained in public outreach, artistic, technological and scientific investigative fronts of our interfacial project. Mostly due to artistic treatment our artsci growing collection turned out to be easily exploitable and aesthetically impacting, motivating us to contextualize it in outreach activities of the group. These included four exhibitions for a macro-category of general public, which took place at museums of science (Casa da Ciência, Rio de Janeiro 2008 and Espaço Ciência Viva during the 2010 Brain Awareness Week at Rio), and arts (Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro 2010 and Centro Cultural Galpão da Ação da Cidadania, Rio de Janeiro 2011). Exhibitions were also held in neuroscientific meetings, including audiovisual presentation at the international interdisciplinary Symposium Art and Science: exploring the limits of human perception (Benasque – Spain 2009), and an integrated scenographic artistic exhibition as part of the satellite artsci event organized by our team during the Brazilian Society of Neuroscience and Behavior Meeting (Caxambu 2010), which results were recently summarized and presented in SfN 2011, gaining the referential indication as a 2011 SfN Hot Topic. In addition, two consecutive selections (2010 and 2011) in the honored category of Special Projects granted by the main scientific funding agency of the state of Rio de Janeiro, FAPERJ, a major contributor during this five year period (10 grant approvals). Some minor exhibitions were also held, mainly restricted to academic public.  

In addition to exhibitions, and mostly reflecting an intellectual demand for emergence of a critical inspirational and theoretical mass aimed to feed this emerging problematization field I refer tentatively as experimental epistemology, we have also conceived, coordinated, produced and organized interdisciplinary events in the period, including the first two editions of the biennial SCHOOLS OF PERCEPTION (2009, 2011), one artsci Satellite Meeting (MAIS QUE A RAZÃO DO BELO: UMA SENSÍVEL CIÊNCIA/MORE THAN REASON IN BEAUTY: A SENSITIVE SCIENCE, Caxambu 2010), a honor meeting including history of science (entitled ANATOMIA DAS PAIXÕES: UM REENCONTRO DAS ARTES E DAS CIÊNCIAS NAS FORMAS PLÁSTICA E MUSICAL/ANATOMY OF PASSION: A REENCOUNTER OF ARTS AND SCIENCES IN PLASTIC AND MUSICAL FORMS, Rio de Janeiro 2008), and finally a permanent discussion round table (HIGHTECHLOWTECH collective) adjoining, once a week, professionals of the society (artists, engineers, system analysts, designers, producers, physicists) with neuroscientists and educators of the academy, to explore technological and artistic creative boundaries. Always conceived as epistemological provocations, meetings included lectures, courses and forum, specially designed to discuss interfaces between arts, (neuro)science and philosophy, and combined, whenever possible, hybrid artsci practical modules, including immersive exhibitions (mentioned above), as well as interferential performing executions. All activities converged to the conceptual complexity of human perception, onto biological, cognitive, philosophical and artistic grounds. In alternative formats, marked by interactive conferences, debates and workshops, researchers, artists and  general public were invited to force innovative sights to human perception as well as to deepen, update and broaden the interdisciplinary discussion concerning the epistemological, artistic and scientific predictions of perception and cognitive handling possibly involved in science creation itself.

By the end of 2009, provided with an incomplete, albeit substantial collection of artistic anatomical pieces, a first round of three consecutive, replicated and complementary experiments started, through which cognitive gain in groups of volunteers was evaluated, making use of technical questionnaires and scales in response to two modeling classes of the human ear anatomy: traditional (classical anatomical aesthetics and formal presentation) versus experimental (artistic aesthetics and non-formal presentation). Experimental classes were completed in late 2010. We are presently analyzing the statistical significance of our data, which partial results have been presented at local and national congresses (three communications and poster/oral presentations in 2010 and 2011). 

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