The collision of Art and Science
Connecting Science and Art takes a special talent.
I saw the orange glow of an ethidium bromide stained DNA band on a UV trans-illuminator for the first time while on a school trip. The result of this was that I fell in love with the idea of fundamental sciences, that led me towards a PhD in molecular biology. During the PhD however, I realized that my interests lay beyond the bench, and I pivoted and started working as a scientific illustrator. I began to appreciate the importance of images in many areas, including science communication, peer to peer discussions and in science pedagogy.
Here, I will share some of my favourite examples of my own work to demonstrate what science illustration and visualization can bring to the scientific enterprise.
Case of being a smarty pants
During my first year in college, a teacher asked the class to illustrate eye development in amphibians. Instead of copying the standard text book diagrams, I read the chapter and interpreted the images myself in light of what I had read. I found that some stages were described in the text, but were not represented as images in the figure. I interpolated those stages visually based on the reference diagrams and the text, and my teacher gave me a 100% score!
I now understand that what I did was very close to science visualization, that is, I attempted to create an image based on the information available.
More than ten years later, I now spend a lot of my time making images for scientists, or thinking about the kind of images that are needed for a particular subject matter and audience. I will share three examples of science inspired artwork and illustrations that were created for different purposes.
Case of cargo transport on microtubules
At the moment, I work in a cytoskeleton lab, where my work involves making images for an illustrated book on how animals change color. One of the mechanisms for quick color change in animals is the transport of pigment filled granules across microtubules, the railway tracks inside the cell. While most text book diagrams show microtubules as straight tubes that emerge from structures around the nucleus, the microscopy data tells a different story. Microtubules are curved and jumbled, and even at some points bundled. I wanted to depict this in an abstract composition.
While trying to draw microtubules, it occurred to me that in some cases, the microtubules had to be in close proximity to each other. I wondered how the large cargo of pigment filled granules would move across microtubules in these dense spaces. What happens if the cargo is too big and gets stuck at a physical obstruction like another microtubule? Does the cargo fall off or does the obstructing microtubule gets pushed away to allow for transport, or can the cargo squeeze and be pushed through? Or is the obstructing microtubule severed to make space for it and then repaired, or does the cargo change its position on the microtubule to go around the physical obstruction, or does some other molecule come and mediate this whole process in any other way?
All these questions came up while trying to draw an abstract picture of microtubules, and shows how simply thinking about how to draw something can lead to a new line of inquiry for a scientist.
Case of the form of the cell
For another project, I asked the question: what is a cell? I looked for answers talking to science teachers, and it often came up that the definitions of the cell and the corresponding imagery in textbooks are often incomplete. Teachers shared with me how students perceive cell as a flat object on which different organelles and structures are just lying around.
This prompted me to create a series of short booklets  where I asked some fundamental questions about the cell.
In this particular work, I wanted to convey the very simple concept that a cell is defined by volume. In spite of being limited by the 2D nature of the drawing sheet, I devised a visual analogy. I compared the cell to an orange. As I sliced up an orange, I also sliced up a Tetrahymena cell.
To my own surprise the intended audience – science enthusiasts from across age groups (trained and untrained) – were able to understand the concept, more easily that I had thought.They were able to distinguish the distribution of internal structures, that organelles were different in different depths, and the shape of the cell changed from top to bottom. Some figured out the polarity of the cell. Some were even able to identify and predict relationships between organelles. For example they noticed how mitochondria (energy making organelles) was closely related to periphery of the cell, where cilia, the structures that drives the motion of the cell, are located.
This illustrates how creative visuals can create comprehension based on visual perception, enabling pedagogical motives.
Case of a breathing cell
A non-scientific audience is most likely to identify a cell as a circular shape containing two organelles: the mitochondria and the nucleus. In this project, I wanted to propose a more updated impression of a cell. I created an intricate drawing of the cell, using pen on paper and converted that to an anaglyph. I wanted to engage the audience through their red-cyan glasses. Through this drawing, people travel from the outside to the inside of the cell, as it responds to a signal by secreting a protein. The anaglyph itself generates the illusion of depth and motion. By combining a dynamic process into a single image, I was also able to convey the sense of the dynamic nature of the cell.
As I had hoped, the audience, ranging from members of public, to school students to scientists, found it enjoyable and visually engaging. It was gratifying to see how this piece initiated interest and sparked conversation.
I firmly believe that my art makes science more accessible and understandable to everyone. I hope to make more images that convey the sense of biology to scientists and students, and the joy of science to everyone.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
awesome. loved it.
Good read! Really liked ‘Case of cargo transport on microtubules’ and how it helped hypothesis building. Shows the importance of illustration and visualisation in research.