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From Transylvania, With Love
Call of Wild Lures NCI Artist-Scientist Marcu

By Rich McManus

All images, except of herself, copyright Monica Marcu

On the Front Page...

On her morning walk to work at a low-rise rental facility in the biotech 'burbs off Route 28 in Rockville, NCI scientist Dr. Monica Marcu passes one of the last active farms in mid-Montgomery County. Seeing the horses and cows there is as much a stimulant to her workday as a snort of coffee is to most of her fellow NIH'ers. That's because nature is her refuge, her nourishment and, quite often, the subject matter of an artistry she has mastered in just the last half decade or so: "paintography," or photography enhanced by brushstrokes applied to color slides either manually or digitally.


A typical Marcu image is both beautiful and vivid, almost psychedelically so. Tour through her work at and the subject matter seems familiar enough — trees, mountains, lakes, notable architecture, flowers, wild animals, even traffic jams — but look again and the images glow in an odd way. They're not straight, sober, faithful representations, but buzzing, hyperalert, reality-drenched mementoes; she consciously attempts to imbue them with a feeling only hinted at by the naked image.

Dr. Monica Marcu
"My images are not documentaries," says Marcu, who trained in pharmacy at Cluj in her native Romania, and earned a Ph.D. in pharmacology at the University of Ottawa, Canada. "It's about what you feel, not just what you see. It's what I want to express. I'm an impressionist photographer."

Fewer than 5 percent of her photographs, she guesses, "are so perfect that they need no further work." She estimates her slide collection now totals more than 10,000.

Marcu began taking pictures, with a Russian 35mm camera, while a young girl in her home town of Transylvania. "Cameras were very expensive in Romania," she remembers. People were her first subjects, because they were the closest.

"My mother was quite a good photographer," she recalls. Marcu also loved to draw, and for a time studied painting. She only began studying photography as a profession some 4 years ago, at an NIH/FAES course taught by longtime NIH photographer Dr. Richard Sprott. Since then she has attended many workshops, read a lot, and collected a slew of honors, including having images accepted for Best of Photography Annual for both 2001 and 2002, and being invited to participate in exhibits from Norfolk, Va., to the Clinical Center (she had five pieces in a fall 2002 gallery show there) to Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, where her work was featured through May 1. Even her web site has won an award, from ProFotos.

"Assiniboine Mountain"

An unabashed hugger of trees, sniffer of leaves, and embracer of the wilderness (she hopes one day to die there, she says, "not in a hospital"), Marcu — who spends almost all of her annual leave heading for the hills with her husband Michael — was for many years a sickly and unrobust person. "I was a very sick child, and was fragile for most of my life," she recalls. "I used to get three or four flues a year. I was even excused from Army service," said Marcu, who lived in Romania until age 27. "But all of this changed when I turned toward the natural world, and began to meditate."

In addition to practicing Transcendental Meditation twice a day (a habit she adopted 13 years ago to counter the stress of graduate school studies — she claims it heightens both her senses and intuition, and imparts energy), Marcu insists on offices with windows and natural light, eats a predominantly vegetarian diet ("mostly raw, organic foods and filtered water") and spends most weekends and holidays (the European term for vacations) in such unpeopled places as Blackwater Falls, W.Va., rural Pennsylvania, and most paradisiacally, the glacier-mown regions of the Canadian Rockies. "We never go to cities — we spend our long holidays in the wilderness," she says. "And we take 15 to 20-mile hikes every day. We prefer the mountains, and difficulty."


The latter she got in spades on a trip last year to the Canadian Rockies: she was snuck up upon by a young grizzly bear, who bore down on her until her husband rose up and made a scary racket with some sticks and stones. "That's the strongest proof that my husband really loves me," she laughs, recalling the incident.

Undeterred by nature's occasional inclemency, Marcu and her husband plan a trip in June to the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and future expeditions to Alaska, and eventually New Zealand, the Himalayas and Tibet.

Meanwhile, she is consumed with lab work on heat shock proteins and chaperones in the Center for Cancer Research's tumor cell biology section, headed by Dr. Len Neckers. With only a year left on her research appointment, she is looking for a future job, and hopes to remain with NIH. Ironically, she is not content with mere "scientist" as a career ambition. Not only is she skeptical of the power of science alone to explain nature — and, most notably, to cure our ailments — she believes there is a higher aspiration, "what Leonardo da Vinci called the Arte-Scienza (or whole-brain thinking). I want to be an Arte-Scienza scholar. I want to use both hemispheres of my brain."


Marcu also wants to be an ambassador for Nature, a welcomer of all who are stressed, ill and tired to take advantage of nature's restoring bounty, so freely available yet so widely underutilized. "It's open for everybody who wants to explore it," she says.

In a way, her nature photos, taken with her trusty Nikon N90 camera, are posters for a more expansive, healthier lifestyle, and she is anxious to display them. This desire has a cost, however; she works on her avocation some 30 hours a week, often foregoing, she chuckles, the housework and cooking. "It's like another job for me...I go to bed late," she laughs, "and watch very little TV."

"Maple Symmetry"

Her pharmacy expertise aside, she is a strong believer in natural remedies, and says people have enormous recuperative powers, given enough time, proper advice and nourishment. "People don't need most drugs," she declares. "I stand as a witness. There is nothing so much of a blessing as being healthy and strong.

Marcu enjoys her work.
"I try to enjoy life as much as I can," she concludes. "I'm a person who stops to smell the flowers. It gives me so much joy. I want to feel life in all its aspects. We must protect our natural resources — they are absolutely irreplaceable. This planet is all we have, and it is wonderful."

To see Marcu's recent images of winter scenes and a new collection of spring flowers, visit her web site, dedicated to "photography with love."

"You Grow, Girl"

"Blue Eyes"

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