Saturday, January 14, 2012

Visual Communication Helps Us See the Unseeable

Scientific animators combine their passions for science, art and computers into rewarding careers. Scientific animators work with computer software similar to that used to create special effects and animated films in Hollywood but, instead of creating creatures and explosions, they use research data to bring molecules and cells to life on screen. Drawing upon dozens of research papers, scientific databases, microscopy data and other resources can take months to show how a molecule or cell moves or interacts (right).

Visualization can be a research tool used to develop, test and refine biomedical hypotheses, not just a method of communication. Scientific animation is used by the drug industry, publishers, medical schools and teaching hospitals, and even for lawyers involved in malpractice lawsuits that require visuals as legal evidence. Medical-device, biotech and pharmaceutical companies use animations about their latest products in sales, marketing and educational materials. Visualizations also end up in museum exhibitions, classroom teaching tools, digital textbooks and documentaries, and on journal covers and websites.

Illustrators and animators working full-time earn about $52,000 at the start of their careers, $65,000 in mid-career and up to $150,000 as seasoned veterans. Many animators also work on a freelance basis with incomes between $79,000 a year up to $250,000.

Drew Barry (left) is a medical animator and winner of a MacArthur grant. Having a background in design and visual storytelling is essential for scientific animators. Some basic training in lighting, color and composition to enable visual expression through drawing or other media is key to success. Employers tell whether an animator has the necessary skills by looking at their portfolio, website, or demo reel, which often showcases only about a minute's worth of animations.

Watch the video below to see Drew Berry's presentation about scientific visualization at a TED conference. While you're at the TED site also look at related presentations such as that by scientific illustrator David Bolinsky.

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