SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) – Doctors and scientists are constantly discovering new things about our bodies. Recently, a researcher at Sanford received a $2 million grant from the National Health Institute to continue his studies on the brain.
But he doesn’t just think about arguably the most important organ while in the lab.
Dr. LJ Pilaz spends his days in a Sanford Research lab. His main focus right now? How brains develop in babies while still in the womb.
“How it develops and how it could go wrong and lead to diseases,” Pilaz said.
One more step in understanding the organ he’s dedicated his career to.
“I’ve always been fascinated by big questions, like really big questions, like why are we here and all this,” Pilaz said. “I was just thinking like trying to figure out how the most complicated, biological machine in the universe is built is one big question that I would like to contribute to understanding.”
But there’s another, more simple reason that led to Pilaz falling in love with the brain.
“The reason why I study the brain is because the inside of the brain, the cells that make up the brains are just beautiful,” Pilaz said.
And he finds inspiration from those cells outside of the lab as well.
“From very early on, like already 13 years ago, I was just looking at them, drawing them on a computer. And then one day I was thinking, ‘oh maybe I can try, whittle some wood to make them,'” Pilaz said.
At night, Pilaz spends his time in his home workshop, sculpting wood into neurons.
“At work it’s a lot about using my brain and here I get to use my hands. And I’m in my shop, I’m in my little paradise,” Pilaz said.
And in his paradise, Pilaz has little helpers.
“I think it’s like really cool, it’s like something that’s not like, like a combination of two things that you wouldn’t really think like would be put together,” Eleonore Pilaz, LJ Pilaz’s daughter, said.
“They’re really, really awesome. Like I love the brains that he makes. They’re really cool,” Mathilde Pilaz, LJ Pilaz’s daughter, said.
Pilaz sells his tree-like neuron designs online. He says he’s sold around 1,200 pieces over the last year and a half.
“I have to say, a lot of the people who purchase my pieces are scientists. A lot of mentors that buy them for their mentees, or mentees that want to thank their mentors or people who just want to decorate their offices,” Pilaz said. “But hopefully at some point I will go beyond this and people will also appreciate the beauty of the brain. This is at least what I’m trying to convey with my sculptures.”
Recently, he was asked to transform that beauty into something he hadn’t created before.
“It started with a commission for a hospital in Texas, a pediatric hospital in Texas and they asked me first to make some regular neurons and then they thought, ‘could you turn neurons into animals?’ I was like, maybe, I don’t know, that’s a little bit out of my comfort zone here and I tried and it came out, I think, good,” Pilaz said. “I was really excited about it and I think this is a new avenue to go work more on.”
So whether in his lab or in his workshop, Pilaz is focused on the brain.
“In my research, I’m always like, I place myself inside the brain and looking at those cells from all different angles to try to understand what’s going on inside them,” Pilaz said. “So it was just an extension of that, except now I put it physically into the world.”
Blending science and art to create a path for all of us to see the beauty in an organ that controls our humanness.
“To remind them that this is what makes you think. These little things that look like trees, there are millions and millions of those inside your brain and they support all of your life,” Pilaz said.