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Scientific Artists Capture the World
By Kate Dalke

Special Issue:
Art & Science
Zip, Jiggle, Whirl:
DNA Hits the Screen
Scientific Artists Capture the World
Medical Illustration Starts with Dissection
Pastel Proteins

Scientific artists are the visual storytellers of biology. With pencil and paper, watercolor paints, and a growing arsenal of computer software, they show us how our bodies work by revealing the unseen—what's hidden beneath our skin and inside our cells.

David Goodsell’s watercolor depicts an extremely magnified view of an immune cell, or macrophage, engulfing a bacterium. It is called “Macrophage and Bacterium 2,000,000X” (2002).

These days scientific art is everywhere—on the Internet, in newspapers and magazines, in posters on the walls of doctors' offices. And perhaps more than ever before, the artists themselves are in demand because they can explain complicated research to the general public, to scientists, and to the people who fund research.

Just last month, the National Science Foundation and Science magazine announced the winners of its first annual scientific art contest, called the Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge.

Scientific artists are a diverse bunch that includes illustrators, animators, photographers, and graphic designers. And they have diverse backgrounds, coming from science, computer science, or traditional medical illustration, for instance. Perhaps they found their own paths to the profession.

Wherever they come from, scientific artists share a passion for science and art. They're mad about both.

Take, for instance, David Goodsell, an artist who works for the Molecular Graphics Laboratory, Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.

This image from a paper on gene therapy shows the artistic and technical abilities of Andrew Swift.

During the day, Goodsell and his colleagues use computer programs to investigate problems in molecular biology, such as how a drug binds to proteins in the AIDS virus.

When Goodsell goes home at night, he doesn't leave work behind. Instead he picks up paintbrush and watercolors and directs his creative energies towards the canvas.

This all started about ten years ago, when he began painting cells, viruses, and blood in his free time. He had been working with DNA crystallography but was feeling burned out professionally.

“I had lost the whole biological context of what I was doing,” Goodsell recalls. “I wanted to get my fascination with the science back.”

His latest project is a three-panel series of watercolor paintings showing a bacterium engulfed by a human immune cell. The art is an intriguing mix of biological realism and fantastical colors and shapes.

Each panel, about a meter high, shows a portion of the bacterium and the immune call, called a macrophage. Every molecule in the cells appears in the painting.

View a slideshow of some of David Goodsell and Andrew Swift's work.

To prepare for the work, Goodsell studied images of the cells taken with an electron microscope. He read biochemistry papers to accurately represent the concentrations of different molecules within the cells.

The series was recently honored among the winners of the Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge. “Macrophage and Bacterium 2,000,000x” is on display in the Center for Integrative Molecular Biosciences at Scripps.

While some artists come from a scientific or computer background, others have formal training in human anatomy. The job of a medical illustrator is to show how advances in the laboratory can be applied to human medicine.

“As a medical illustrator, I create little visual stories that are more akin to comic books than to specimens you might see on a slide,” says Andrew Swift, a professor in medical illustration at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta.

Swift has created a poster series about subjects in molecular biology. For an award-winning poster about gene therapy and brain tumors, Swift illustrated the theory behind a technique to remove lingering tumor cells after brain surgery.

The goal was to create something eye-catching that also describes the research. The viewer is invited into the poster with detailed renderings. In the center, a needle injects cells into brain tissue; around the poster's perimeter is an arch of colorful viruses used to deliver the cells.

The gene-therapy poster was recently featured in an exhibit called “Anatomical Revisioning” at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland. And the poster series has won numerous awards at the Association of Medical Illustrators.

Swift worked on the poster series with James Fick, a neurosurgeon at the Medical College of Georgia. Fick hired Swift about eight years ago to explain his work in a realistic and understandable way to other scientists, biotechnology companies, and students.

They chose to illustrate gene therapy, then a new technique in an emerging field of biology. The goal was to be scientifically accurate and incorporate the best traditions of medical illustration without contributing to the media hype that was then associated with gene therapy.

“We wanted the art to stand the test of time,” says Fick.

As with most creative collaborations, the process was a mix of brainstorming, countless conversations, and old-fashioned hard work. Swift spent two painstaking years drawing cells under the microscope in Fick's laboratory.

Fick expects his collaboration with Swift to last a lifetime. “I hope that several decades from now, we're still going strong.”

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