Peter Dizikes: Writings on Science and Society

A Scientist’s Career in Pictures
A Harvard postdoc strikes out on her own as a science animator but remains close to the lab.
By Peter Dizikes. Nature Network Boston, January 14, 2008

Like many newly minted PhDs in cell biology, Janet Iwasa holds a postdoctoral position in a prominent lab.

But Iwasa has a role unlike most of her peers: she is an illustrator and animator, bringing to life key concepts in molecular biology being studied by Jack Szostak’s research group at Harvard Medical School.

Iwasa is at the forefront of a trend in the life sciences, where biologists and biochemists are placing increased emphasis on the visual representation of their discoveries. They believe that sophisticated 3-D animations and graphics showing complex cellular processes will help in research, teaching, and public outreach. Indeed, Iwasa is developing bioscience displays for Boston’s Museum of Science. “We want to help people think in a molecular fashion,” she says.

“It’s been incredibly useful,” says Szostak of Iwasa’s work, which depicts concepts such as the way RNA may have begun to replicate itself when life was just getting started on Earth billions of years ago. “I use her illustrations and animations in my own seminars to try to quickly get across ideas people aren’t familiar with, and I’ve had a very positive reaction from people. We hope over time her work will also find more of a public outlet.”

Iwasa’s graphics have also found their way onto the Szostak lab website and have been included in some of the group’s forthcoming papers, as well as others published by labs from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and the University of California, San Francisco. Her work has even appeared on the covers of Cell and the Journal of Cell Biology.

work by Janet Iwasa

At the moment, though, careers at the intersection of science and graphic design are both exciting and daunting. While the need for such work is expanding, there is no formal career path for it, so entering the field is a matter of personal initiative. Iwasa essentially created her Harvard post by securing a National Science Foundation grant for illustration and approaching Szostak’s lab to discuss how she could contribute.

Gear shift

Just a few years ago, Iwasa was on a conventional career track in academic science, but had a personal interest in Web and graphic design. “I’ve always been inclined that way and really enjoyed it,” she says. As a graduate student at the University of California, San Francisco, Iwasa was encouraged by a professor to explore animation to better study kinesins, a type of motor protein in the cell.

Before long, she was taking weekly animation classes at San Francisco State University while finishing her doctorate. Instead of looking for a conventional postdoc, she applied for NSF funding and even took an intensive nine-week course to learn how to use 3-D animation software called Maya at the Gnomon School of Visual Effects in Hollywood, a frequent stop for designers in the entertainment industry. After completing the course in September 2006, she moved to Boston to begin work at the Szostak lab.

For the Museum of Science, Iwasa is creating material in three formats: videos to accompany museum talks, touch-screen displays, and an online virtual exhibit on the origins of life.

Working for such a variety of clients means science illustrators must be able to tailor their work to different audiences, says Iwasa. In a museum, “somebody trying to understand what a protocell is probably doesn’t need to know how all these molecules move around.” Her MoS work is thus more abstract and symbolic. But at Harvard, Iwasa’s cell biology background allows her to collaborate with researchers to produce more-detailed visualizations based on scientific data. “I can show something to Jack, and he’ll say, ‘Maybe this way is better supported by the literature,’ and he’ll refer me to some papers.”

Skills in need

There is great pent-up demand for design skills in science, says Robert Lue, executive director of undergraduate education in the molecular and cellular biology department at Harvard. “I would be extremely surprised if this does not continue to grow as a major part of the doing, teaching, and communication of science,” says Lue, who also heads a Harvard project developing biological animations. “We’re in a world that is much more visually deep and powerful than anything we’ve seen before.”

Lue says many students now talk to him about acquiring illustration training, either as a standard science skill or as a career itself. Like Iwasa, Lue believes there is no template for science-design success. “If you want a well-established, safe, mature field, this may not be the thing for you. If you want to be an engine that pushes this field forward, there is an enormous opportunity.”

See Iwasa’s website for her other work.


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My work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Slate, Salon, Technology Review, and numerous other publications. You can learn more about me here.


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Photo credit: Flickr user alb Marcos, via a Creative Commons license