© Norm Barker, MA, MS, RBP, FBCA, FRPS
Norm Barker's image, "Psammoma Bodies, Brain Tumor x64 " won a Judges Choice award and an Image of Merit award in the Magnified Imaging category of the BioImages 2022 Salon.
What was your concept when creating this image? Was it for a job or for personal creativity?
I’m a Professor of Pathology & Art as Applied to Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. I work and collaborate with many of the top neuropathologists and neurosurgeons in the world. Over the last twenty years, I have had the pleasure of working on 3 editions of the book Diagnostic Neuropathology, textbook, providing literally tens of thousands of photomicrographs for all three editions. In my 42 years of doing Bio/scientific photography and photographing the human body and all of its organ systems inside and out, my favorite is the human brain… just for its sheer complexity and beauty. Over the years I have published several books about the beauty and aesthetics of the scientific image. So whenever I make an image, the first thing I do is accurately document the science but also do it in a beautiful way that not only educates but elucidates the specimen in an interesting way.
Tell us something about the creative process you use when coming up with a solution to a problem/assignment.
When a surgical pathologist is in the grossing room, not only is visual observation important but how the specimen feels, the tactile sensation of touch is often very important in the final diagnosis. Because of the calcium in this specimen when rubbed between the fingers it often feels gritty or sandy. When photographed under the traditional light microscope with H&E staining all you can see are the characteristic circular calcifications in the specimen, but when captured with double band fluorescence excitation you can see the texture and grain of the specimen.
What technical issues did you have, or have to work out, to create this image?
Because these specimens are calcified they are very difficult to cut cleanly without shattering or tearing with a microtome knife, so looking through scores of specimens to get that “textbook quality“ was a real challenge.
Tell us something about the subject of this image.
You have to ask yourself, how can anything so beautiful be so dangerous and that’s what we are looking at… a brain tumor, a Glioblastoma often one of the deadliest types of brain cancer.
These concentric layers of calcification, which seen microscopically are often a characteristic of Glioblastoma. The word comes from the Greek word (psammos) meaning sand. These microscopic calcifications when prepared for diagnosis are surrounded by meningothelial cells that feel like beach sand when preparing a smear and impart a gritty sensation. This collection of Necrotic cells form the focus for surrounding calcific deposition. They have a lamellated concentric calcified structure, they are generally a sign of chronic inflammation.
Left: H&E, x64
Right: Double Band Fluorescence Excitation, FITC and Texas Red, x64
What elements are important to you when you judge or critique your work or the work of other professionals.
When I look at and judge the graduate students work the first thing I look at and stress is what is this image communicating what is the story behind the image, how is the image going to be used. I always love that scientific image that has what I call the “Wow Factor”! You might not know exactly what you are looking at, and that’s where a good legend or explanation comes in, to educate the viewer.
Tell us something about you. What is your imaging background?
After I graduated from The Maryland Institute College of Art with a BFA in Photography, I wanted to go on to graduate school but had to pay the bills. I fell into a two-year paid training position at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine as a biomedical photographer. At the time I didn't even know what a biomedical photographer was, I wanted to be an artist. It didn't take long to figure that art was not going to pay the bills. This was around 1980 and one of the benefits of the job was that they paid for graduate school in the evening as long as you went to Johns Hopkins. I completed an MS in continuing education and was hired on staff, and a few years later went back to graduate school and completed an MA in publications design. It’s sort of ironic that I was able to become that artist and show my scientific/art work in exhibits around the world and have my work in the permanent collections in more than 40 major museums.
I always enjoyed teaching and sharing information in a collaborative way. Many photographers in the commercial world like to keep their own little technical secrets to themselves, so no one else finds out and can do the same thing and compete. This is one of the positives about the BCA and that’s people freely share information and techniques.
Just because I'm a professor at Johns Hopkins doesn't mean I'm not a full-time working photographer. Our department is 100% cost recovery, which really means we're a business within the university. Even though I'm a full-time university faculty member, I have to pay for space, recover salaries, project income, and deal with all the business issues a freelancer would. The big difference is, I have benefits and receive a steady paycheck. The teaching is just one part of my job. In a large academic medical center with space and resources at a premium, nothing is free. If you don't bring money in, you won't be around for long. Dealing with office politics also comes into play when working for a large institution, whether it's Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Duke or General Motors.
Who are some of your favorite image makers?
William Henry Fox Talbot, Timothy O’Sullivan, Lee Freidlander, Annie Leibovitz
What images or image makers inspire or influence you?
Frans Lanting, Sebastio Salgado, Berenice Abbott, Rosamond Wolf Purcell, Chris Killip
Do you have any advice for people interested in an imaging career in biomedical/life sciences.
It’s a challenging career for many reasons, but from what I have observed over the years is most people are simply not willing to put the work in to get ahead. Being an image maker is not a 40 hour a week job.
It’s constantly working, looking, thinking about images and picking the right mentors to help push you forward, to do better work, which takes evenings and weekends of constantly working. A lot of people are just not willing to make that commitment.
Are you a member of BCA and if so how has your membership in the BCA helped you?
I have been a BCA member for more than 40 years and working and meeting with like minded people has been a source of information and inspiration over the years.