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.

Clare: What have you enjoyed most in your day today?

Kate: Today I had a meeting with the sound engineers who are designing the ambisonic soundscape for the VR project. That’s always fun for me to explain what the project is to people who don’t know about the science – it’s a good test for me to know that I’m explaining it in a way that others can understand. It’s also great to get some other creative input, in this case on the way we can use another creative practice, (sound), to enhance the communication and help people feel immersed and to navigate the information.

Clare: Your career began in veterinary science and then with a PhD you transitioned into biomedical research with a focus on epigenetics and cancer biology – this informs your current work. What prompted you, or what were your motivations, to think outside the lab and pursue a career than combined science and art?

Kate: When I was kid, I was so focused on becoming a vet that I didn’t consider anything else. I loved training to become a vet and enjoyed practice, but once I became a vet, it didn’t feel like the endpoint. I became interested in cancer and I wanted to learn about different types of cancer and why certain breeds of dogs got certain types of cancer. I came to the Garvan to learn how to do research, always with the view that I would take it back into the veterinary field.

During my PhD, I realised that what I’m really passionate about is creating moments of understanding, not necessarily doing the bench work but explaining and communicating science. I have always been a visual person, painting and drawing throughout school and as a hobby so using this as my communication tool was the natural choice. I don’t think it was a conscious decision to step away from the bench or the clinic; it was a natural progression over time of realising what I was particularly interested in as I went along.

I am now undertaking a research Masters with UNSW Art and Design but up until this point I haven’t embarked on any formal training except for online tutorials that have allowed me to create the animations. The tipping point in my career was when I applied for a government grant to focus purely on visual communication. Prior to that I was doing a lot of writing, and not focusing on my own projects. It was the Inspiring Australia initiative that enabled me to develop my skills in animation.

Clare: Do you have any advice for someone who would like to develop their visual design skills (even if simply for PowerPoint presentations)?

Kate: Sure, and it's really important. As a scientist, you have to make posters to explain your work and more journals are now asking for graphical abstracts where you have to use just one image to describe the concept of what it is that you’re publishing about. Distilling this down to just one image is very, very challenging.

I think a lot of it is practice. Sometime people think that if they learn the software, like Adobe Creative Suite or Illustrator (which is what I usually use), that the visual communication will just come with that – once they know what tools to use it will be easy. But it’s actually the other way around: if you know the principles of communication and then learn the software, you’re going to be better off. I always recommend people physically draw their diagrams with a pen and paper first, before going to anything digital. It helps to cognitively unpack the key messages.

There are lots of tutorials and resources available online [that explain] the principles of communications, for example, how to design figures that are okay for colour-blind people or how objects are [spaced and] related to each other on the page. Bang Wong, an artist who works at the Broad Institute in Boston, writes a monthly article in Nature Methods on these principles. Tamara Munzner has also written textbooks on visual communication that are great.

Clare: You established Medipics and Prose, your freelance brand, while working with the Garvan Institute of Medical Research as science writer and visual communicator. What do you do under these brands and what are the benefits and challenges of freelance work?

Kate: For a long time, I was employed part-time at the Garvan, which enabled me to pursue other interests, for example, my freelance work Medipics and Prose. The work is very similar: I put together figures, presentations and animations for various people including doctors, scientists and vets.

Freelance work comes and goes so time management is a challenge all freelancers face. One week I’ll have ten jobs and the next month I have nothing so it’s hard to predict and because of that you feel like you can’t say no to anything (but I’m getting much better at that). As for advantages, there is the opportunity for personal development. [Freelance work] gives you the opportunity to take on challenges that you might not be exposed to in the one organisation and meet new people – this gives you new ideas on ways to communicate different topics that then can feed into the main projects.

Clare: Recently you returned to research to undertake a Masters at UNSW Art and Design and analyse concepts in visual science communication. What do you see as the role for art in science now and in the future? What are the benefits of these art and science coming together?

Kate: There is a continuum between art and science. At one end, you have data visualisation where you may use the tools of art and design to gain better insights into scientific data. At this end of the continuum there is intentionally not much human input, or as little as possible, to keep the raw data pure. At the other end of the art-science interface, you have got more expressive artwork where artists are inspired by science but it is an interpretation of the science rather than a representation of the raw data.

What I do is somewhere in the middle: the visualisation is based on real data and molecular models but there is also some degree of human input and artistic interpretation. Sometimes the concepts I am trying to explain are not yet fully understood - so part of what I show molecularly may be very well understood but there might be other parts that aren’t – so there is some artistic license there to stitch things together. The challenge is to remain true to what we know the science to be, so not introducing any elements or added on effects that would make the science untrue.

I see that one of the biggest benefits of combining art with science is the conversations that are generated when people talk about the art and how it is influenced by the science. In my masters, I am trying to unpack how my creative and scientific process can become the product as visual science communication. In the past, when I’ve made my animations people have watched the final product, but it’s the storyboards, sketches or illustrations that I’ve made along the way that people feel most confident about asking about – that starts a conversation and allows you to talk more about the science. That has been an unexpected outcome of my work.

Clare: Here at Franklin Women we aim to connect women working in diverse health and medical research careers to promote new professional relationships and opportunities. Is there a particular person that you have met over the course of your career who has been influential in you getting to where you are today?

Kate: There have been many people along the way who have influenced me quite substantially. I remember having a conversation with my PhD co-supervisor after my PhD and he suggested that I could go freelance and do visual science communication professionally. Before this point, I didn’t consider it seriously until he suggested it and it gave me the confidence to start to accept freelance jobs. In the early days the imposter syndrome was quite strong. I think for me, its because there are no predetermined career path – no benchmarks to measure yourself against and so I have to establish my own measures of success that align with both my personal goals and also with the strategies of the institute.

Clare: Thanks Kate!

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