In the living room of her Hyde Park apartment, University of Chicago graduate student Yuqing Zhu holds up Precession, her latest artwork, next to a print by Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico.
Both depict shadowy colonnades, but Zhu adds personal flourishes: a self-portrait, tinted green; eyes, one brown and one blue, peering through floating glasses; a disembodied smile. An artist and a second-year PhD student in neuroscience, Zhu’s two passions both represent chances for her to turn inward.
“Art and neuroscience require different kinds of effort,” she said, “but the core of it is just curiosity, expression and understanding of self.”
Working in computational neuroscience, Zhu trains computer models to perform visual tasks to better understand vision. That training has changed how she thinks about sight, helping her understand that what she sees is “the manifestation of the physics of light, and how that relates to the internal biology of my retina.”
As an artist, Zhu’s work alludes not only to Western Surrealists from the early 20th century, but to her own identity. Relying heavily on her Chinese heritage, Zhu draws characters in fanciful qipaos (one-piece Chinese dresses dating back to the Manchu era) or wearing Chinese army hats that nod to recent history. She also explores recent Chinese history, narratives she is familiar with thanks to her parents and grandparents.