From biomedical researcher to visual science communicator

Our Roving Reporter Clare Watson chats to Kate Patterson, Visual Science Communicator, Garvan Institute of Medical Research, and Research Fellow, 3D Visualisation and Aesthetics Lab, UNSW Art and Design.

Clare: Hi Kate, you have built a colourful career as a visual science communication specialist and it is difficult to summarise your your current roles in one sentence! Can you tell me, what exactly IS visual science communication?

Kate: I use visual language to translate complex science concepts and ideas into a form that a broad audience can access and engage with perhaps in a different way to traditional modes of science communication. That varies from animations (paired with a voiceover) to illustrations and virtual reality experiences. Interestingly, it often is not just the product but the process of creating these visuals that inspires the best conversations and opportunities to communicate aspects of the science.

A lot of the time [with visual communication], I don’t expect the audience to understand every single part of what I’m showing them because the images are complex, show dynamic events and most of my audiences don’t have a strong science background. In this case, what I hope to achieve is an interest and sense of awareness for the complexity and detail of the biology and the technologies that we can use to understand molecular mechanisms in the cell.

Clare: What projects are you currently working on?

Kate: I’ve just started a new project, which is super exciting – it’s a virtual reality (VR) project. Most of what I’ve done in the past has been screen-based animations and you watch in that 2D screen-based mode. Often people would ask me ‘How can I get into the screen? How can I actually experience what it is like inside a cell?’ That sparked the idea to use virtual reality to put someone inside the cell or inside the genome, for example.

The project will explain concepts related to a cutting edge approach to cellular genomics we are building at Garvan [Institute of Medical Research] where you can assay a single cell. It’s called single cell transcriptomics or genomics. Instead of taking a bunch of cells and looking at what the genome is doing over an average of thousands of cells, scientists can now assay thousands of individual cells – so it’s a much more sensitive assay to see what is going on in certain populations of cells.  The new centre will host some pretty amazing research projects that form a collaboration with the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. More...