By Jirayu “Boo Boo” Tanprasertsuk, Ph.D. candidate in Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition, Tufts University
Jirayu was the winner of the 2018 Biochemical Society Science Communication Competition (video category). Here Jirayu explores some of his inspirations in creating his video. You can see his winning entry, “Eating for your eyes”, here. The winning written article, by Victoria Bolton, is published in the August 2018 issue of The Biochemist magazine, which you can find here.
When I was in grade school I used to doodle and write about things I learned in school every day. I would be so proud of my ‘artworks’ and show them to everybody. Eventually, I had to “grow out of it” and spend more time doing schoolwork. So when I heard about the Biochemical Society’s Science Communication Competition, I knew it was the right opportunity for me to do what I used to love: communicating through art. I was over the moon when I learned that I won the first place in this competition. Here are three reasons why I think art is an excellent medium, especially for science communication:
Science is even more beautiful with art.
Since the day that Robert Hooke discovered the cell with his microscope, our view of biology has changed. Biology is now about visualizing how things work: molecular movement, protein interaction, cell communication. With advanced biological imaging techniques such as Brainbow, we can label individual neurons with colourful fluorescent proteins (Figure 1), and fully appreciate the intricate organization of the brain. Wouldn’t you call this a piece of art?
Figure 1: Neurons in the dentate gyrus of a mouse brain expressing colorful fluorescent proteins (Photo credit: Livet, Weissman, Sanes, and Lichtman at Harvard University)
I am also a big fan of astronomy pictures. We are able to investigate phenomena happening at a thousand light years away by just… seeing them. This photo of nebula NGC 7635, also known as the Bubble Nebula, in the constellation of Cassiopeia is my favourite (Figure 2). It reminds me of a scoop of the best blueberry ice cream in the world.
Figure 2: The Bubble Nebula as captured by the Hubble telescope (Photo credit: ESA/Hubble)
Art makes science easy and fun.
I once came across an interesting biology educational research paper on using a comic book Optical Allusions to teach college-level biology classes (Figure 3). Students had an assessment on scientific content and attitude towards Biology (which measured how fun and easy Biology was to them) before and after reading the comic book. The authors found that students, especially whose major was not Biology, showed a significant improvement on both content and attitudes towards the subject after reading the comic book.
Figure 3: An illustration of a blind spot from Optical Allusion (Photo credit: Jay Hosler)
And if you haven’t checked out Planet Earth and Planet Earth II (Figure 4), what are you waiting for? Cinematography is a craft that seamlessly combines visual arts and the art of storytelling. These films, along with this stunning list, are so influential that even Ne-Yo went vegan after watching What the Health. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth communicated the seriousness of environmental issues to the public so well that it helped him receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.
Figure 4: A Pygmy three-toed sloth swimming in Planet Earth II (Photo credit: bbc.co.uk)
A picture is worth a thousand words.
I still remember one particular Molecular Biology lecture so clearly. It was on DNA replication in eukaryotic cells. Though I read the textbook chapter over and over again, I just could not visualize the process in my head. But once our professor showed us this animation, everything just became crystal clear to me. The 2-minute animation conveyed the information way more effectively than any chapter of a book could ever do. It helped me visualize important protein-DNA complexes such as a replication fork, which is drastically different to what is usually depicted in a textbook.
As a nutrition science student, another piece of art that I really love is The 1992 Food Guide Pyramid issued by the United States Department of Agriculture (Figure 5). The Food Pyramid summarized tons and tons of scientific findings and information from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans into one simple figure. It was straightforward and could effectively deliver dietary recommendations to the public. Since then the icon has evolved into the 2005 MyPyramid, and currently MyPlate, but the Food Pyramid is my all time favorite.
Figure 5: The 1992 Food Guide Pyramid (Photo credit: choosemyplate.gov)
STEM + Art = STEAM
Finally, I am so glad to hear that I am not alone with the idea of combining art and science. STEAM movement was initiated at the Rhode Island School of Design. Students are also pursuing a career in medical illustration, which has a promising job outlook (Figure 6). And of course, it would be a sin to not mention the world-famous AsapSCIENCE Youtube channel. Even as a scientist, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to summarize a complex data set into simple figures for effective communication. Who would think that all the time spent doodling as a kid would have such a significant impact on my view of art and science? Seeing that Leonardo da Vinci did not limit his expertise to only art or science, I want to be just like him!
Figure 6: The cover of Science magazine created by a medical illustrator Valerie Altounian
(Photo credit: American Association for the Advancement of Science)
The second place written article by Jenna Hebert will be published in the October issue of The Biochemist along with a blog post from the second place video winner Ellie Staniforth.