Science and art: creatively communicating complexity

DECEMBER 4TH, 2019 AT 9:00 PM

Colin is a PhD candidate in Dr. Ahmad (Mo) Khalil’s Lab at Boston University. His research is focused on epigenetics, and it involves developing molecular tools to design tunable and robust cellular memory. In his free time, he trains for triathlons, seeks out new foods, and watches films with his family.

There is a unique relationship between art and science with complementary roles that have formed important collaborative contributions throughout history. However, as evident in the structure of modern education tracks and government spending budgets, society generally prefers to separate the two. For those with passions that defy these standards, transitioning between uncommonly linked paths can be difficult. It may often feel as though you must blaze your own trail, but that is not the case!


My upbringing was deeply rooted in arts. My parents met on a film set. I grew up in a building populated with thousands of performing artists. My father is now a photographer. My mother has traversed a path through acting, singing, dancing, sculpting, and now teaches English. In high school, I majored in drama. My younger brother continues to pursue acting. And yet, somewhere along the way, I jumped into biology and chemistry and found myself in grad school.


I am not going to discuss specifically moving from stage acting to synthetic biology, but I will focus on the overlap between artistic and scientific careers which I have come to appreciate. I will talk about where these intersections are most evident and how you can apply your talents.


Considering scientists who produce art and artists who produce science, several historical examples come to mind. There was the renaissance man, Leonardo DaVinci, who in addition to creating the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, also studied human anatomy, finding beauty in the human form. There was the unveiling of the microworld’s aesthetics to the public by sketches in Robert Hooke’s Micrographia. There is Ramon Y Cajal, whose neuroscience was accompanied by stunningly detailed illustrations of the neurons he studied. These tangible examples demonstrate the historical importance of producing accurate visual representations in science. However, with modern fast and powerful imaging techniques, artistic production feels less of a necessity and more of a hobby to modern-day scientists. Producing vivid scientific images straddles the border of art and science in a manner uncomfortable for many. So, science-artists may be asking themselves, how might one’s art contribute to their science or vice versa?


There are many easy little ways to begin mixing your art and science, and they may help you think about your science in a constructive way. For one, scientists should be thinking often about how to present their work, which can be very efficient with well-composed visuals. While you do not have to sketch your specimen like Hooke or Ramon y Cajal, there is still an art to choosing images, coloring them in an informative and appealing way, and even putting together figures. You can use even more artistic license composing graphical abstracts, which need to capture a reader’s attention while including key scientific ideas. Cell Press released some guidelines (see resources section below) that describe how one should make an effective graphical abstract, including a few examples. Another great visualization guide is by Felice Frankel (see resources section below). These improve the effectiveness of your research communication by using fundamental artistic rules in your presentation. Additionally, attractiveness of design should be considered for all things you build in the lab. This is a quality often overlooked for both hardware and software. In prototyping phases, it is obvious that there are higher priority improvements to be made. But as a product becomes more finished, creating a sleek design or user-friendly interface can help you share or sell your product.


Conversely, you can easily introduce your science into your art. Think about how to present the grand ideas behind your work to a broader audience in a few snapshots. Imagine how you want your journal cover to look and use that as inspiration. Your artistic audience is likely to be much broader, so think about how you can relate your work to the common person. How might your scientific work interact with society? How does your art interact with its audience? What issues are addressed by this discipline of science? How can these concepts come together to form a coherent piece? Whether you intend for your art to remain a hobby or turn into a career, keep practicing and sharing!


As an aside, modern science in art should not be ignored. There are some good examples of using sci-fi such as in novels by Michael Crichton, who has a medical degree, or in movies like Interstellar, which utilized consultation from astrophysicists at Caltech to blend science with drama. But there are also numerous (laughably) bad uses of science in entertainment. Popular Mechanics made a fun top 10 of most accurate and inaccurate sci-fi films which makes one wonder how frequently an entertainment industry consults with scientists. An article in Nature by Paul Smaglik discusses the intersection of art and science that affects public percept. He uses a few examples and considers advantages and disadvantages of scientific consulting in media. In short, one should not expect to support a career with media consulting, but rather use it as an outreach avenue (which could be a lot of fun) to promote accurate science to the general public.

Tangible Tips

  • Keep making art! No matter what stage you are at, apply your talent. You can use your art as a meditative experience or an outlet for your creativity. Keep creating. Imagine what the cover art of that dream journal article may look like. Doodle. Paint. Sculpt. And share it with others. Feedback loops are useful for honing your skills and conveying your intended ideas and emotions.


  • Find a community. No matter your specific scientific discipline, there are likely to be related artistic blogs, exhibits, and gatherings.
  • Find online communities on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Rich communities exist on social media platforms that may serve your particular field of interest and artistic medium. These are great ways of getting involved, learning how others apply their science/art, and discovering events or applicable resources.
  • Attend conferences focused on illustration and visualization like the Gordon Research Conference on Visualization in Science and Education, IEEE Science Visualization Conference, or the annual meeting for the Association of Medical Illustrators.
  • Universities are beginning to support more art/science spaces like UCLA’s Art|Sci Center and MIT’s Media Lab. If the university does not have official courses or spaces, you might be able to find or found student clubs like USC’s Corpus Callosum.
  • Follow interesting people who integrate art and science (a few highlighted below), see what communities they interact with, and read up on the obstacles they faced.


  • Fund your projects with many resources from grants to competitions!
  • The US National Endowment for the Arts funds collaborative technology-related projects.
  • The National Science Foundation also funds several projects like the large community effort SEAD (Network for Sciences, Engineering, Arts, and Design), and they hold competitions like the Vizzies.
  • Many other science organizations hold art competitions as well (like the Vizzies. Often not a lot of money, but perhaps some good recognition).


  • Consider a career involving the arts, such as an architect, medical illustrator, science animator, industrial design. Museums can be open to exhibits that mix art and technology. Institutions may even produce specific art-science programs such as ARTS@CERN which promotes the union of artistry and particle physics. Find where your passions intersect and tell stories about science with your art. However, don’t forget about the importance of your specialized science skills! While there are options to develop a career planted firmly in the arts, you can still pursue a scientific career and use your artistic talents for outreach or to improve the communication of your work.



Looking for some inspiration? Here are some cool people that are integrating science and art.

Greg Dunn – During his PhD in neuroscience at UPenn, Greg carved out time to continue making art. He soon noticed the similarities between the neuron images that he encountered daily in the lab and East Asian illustrations of trees and nature. Using an ink-blowing technique from that art form, he began painting neurons, making his way onto journal covers, and then breaking into the fine art landscape. Now, he puts together exhibits of microetchings (designing patterns on reflective surfaces to create dazzling visuals) and paintings of the brain and its cellular landscape, including a project funded by the National Science Foundation. He uses his work to present the enormous complexity of the brain in a manner more comprehensible than with numbers. Check out his really cool stuff on his website.

Self Reflected under violet and white lights- microetching of a brain slice by Dr. Dunn and Dr. Brian Edwards


Julie Freeman – She received her PhD, titled ‘Defining Data as an Art Material’, from the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Queen Mary University of London. Julie uses datasets to direct the strokes of her art. Sometimes her work illuminates biological behaviors. Sometimes it interacts and responds to its viewer or societal trends. Almost always, she is translating a dataset into an art piece. She tells the stories written by the data and creates tangible representations, offering interesting points of view. See more of her projects here.


Tea Flock – Depicts group behaviors using data from migratory birds between tea growing countries and the UK by Julie Freeman


Janet Iwasa – An assistant professor at the University of Utah, Janet’s work is mostly in the science realm with a splash of creativity. Her lab focuses on science communication and molecular visualization, largely through animation and illustration. She has developed tools like the Molecular Flipbook to help molecular biologists communicate their work. Check out her projects through her lab website.

Useful Resources

Cell Press’s guidelines on how to make a graphical abstract:


Felice Frankel’s book about improving figure visualization:


Popular Mechanic’s list of accurate and inaccurate sci-fi movies:


An article in Nature about scientific consulting in entertainment:


Gordon Research Conference on Visualization in Science and Education:


IEEE Science Visualization Conference:


Association of Medical Illustrators:


UCLA’s Art|Sci Center:


MIT’s Media Lab:


USC’s student-organized science/technology club, Corpus Callosum:


NSF-funded Network for Science, Engineering, Art, and Design (SEAD):


National Science Foundation’s Visualization Challenge (the Vizzies):


ARTS@CERN program that brings artists to the particle physics lab, CERN:


Greg Dunn – artist with a neuroscience background:


Julie Freeman – artist who uses data as a material:


Tool for making protein illustrations and animations:


Janet Iwasa – professor at University of Utah working on molecular illustration and animations:

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