Communicable Biology

Once a year or so, I have a biology student who’s a great photographer or illustrator. We talk about scientific photography or scientific illustration as a career path, but I haven’t been able to offer much beyond that. Well, now I can. A colleague just turned me on to this organization, the BioCommunications Association (

From their website:

A typical BCA member is a dedicated, passionate, creative and technical biological/medical photographer, graphic designer, illustrator or videographer employed by hospitals, medical facilities, colleges, universities and research institutions in the life sciences and health care industry.

They offer an education grant: The fund has awarded grants to applicants from several countries for a wide variety of projects such as preparation for certification, attendance at workshops, photographic exhibit support, and the development of new imaging techniques for the microscope. Awards are limited to no more than 33% of available funds for the year and are typically $500 or less. and Any student, trainee, biocommunicator, or institutional program that can demonstrate a need for project funding may apply. So, it’s only $500, but its something.

They also offer a scholarship to support educational opportunities for full-time undergraduate or graduate student pursuing a career in scientific/biomedical visual communications, at an accredited school.

Additionally, they run an annual BioImages competition. Check out their amazing winners gallery here: Be sure to scroll down for the videos!

Last but not least, check out their nicely curated list of links. They include links to academic programs, inspirations and stock images. Maybe I’ll be inspired to branch out from WikiMedia Images.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. A bacteria that causes infections and is one that is resistant to many antibiotics.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. A bacteria that causes infections and is one that is resistant to many antibiotics.



Serious Space Games

Mrs. Muriel Riester, Librarian at the International Space University (  has assembled an interesting list of space-related scientific Serious Games ( Video games integrate technology, the visual arts, design, and story-telling, and can center on STEM content. Students can learn about STEM disciplines through playing these games, and can learn even more by developing them!

Screenshot from the open-source space simulator Vegastrike.

Screenshot from the open-source space simulator Vegastrike.

Virtual STEAM

The field of scientific visualization represents an authentic connection between the arts/design and the STEM disciplines.  Daniel Keefe ( and David Laidlaw (  recently reported on what they’ve learned through the their teaching in the field of Virtual Reality ( VR is advanced visualization technology that has broad appeal for undergraduates of all disciplines.

Stenger with VPL gear. Nicole Stenger is a French-born, American artist and pioneer in Virtual Reality

Nicole Stenger with VPL gear. Stenger is a French-born, American artist and pioneer in Virtual Reality.

The authors discovered that when art and STEM students worked together on Virtual Reality data visualization projects, they each began to develop some expertise in the other’s discipline. This exploration improved cross-disciplinary communication, facilitating the collaboration.

The authors incorporated important elements of art classes into their teaching. For one, they used a critique-style discussion of work-in-progress. Scientists knowledgeable about the data joined in. They found these classroom critiques so useful that they brought this teaching/learning technique into other computer science courses. (I could see how art-style classroom critique could be useful in other STEM courses as well.) Both groups of students faced the additional challenge of effective communication with the scientists whose research they were representing. In life-after-university, this third party could represent a client or additional collaborator.

They also emphasized the importance of “sketching” prior to programming. Sketching took various forms including paper & pencil, a series of concept sketches using Adobe Illustrator, acting out possible user experiences, short films, sculptures, and prototyping in the CavePainting virtual reality system. Data display environments help to align sketches with the reality of the data.

This paper causes me to reflect on my own teaching and on the importance of reflection for learning. It’s important to slow down, develop lots of ideas, get lots of feedback, and learn how to understand each other.

The paper described here was published in the refereed proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality 2013 which was held as part of the 15th International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction.

Origami Origami

Origami authentically merges art and design with mathematical theory, algorithms, and technology. Math is central to learning in STEM, and is a language shared by STEM, art and design (

Origami artist Dr. Robert J. Lang of Alamo, California, also a physicist and engineer with expertise in R&D, has written and spoken extensively on these ideas ( Paper folding artist Michael LaFosse of Origamido Studio ( in Haverhill, Massachusetts, is a biologist by training and uses organisms as subjects for his art.

There are even conferences about this type of work. The Sixth International Conference on Origami in Science, Mathematics, and Education (6OSME) ( will take place at lovely Yayoi Auditorium on the Hongo campus of The University of Tokyo ( in August 2014. The conference is currently taking submissions from “art, design, mathematics, science, computer science, engineering, liberal arts, history, education, and other fields and their intersections.” 

Paper cranes, folded as prayers for peace. Peace Park, Hiroshima, Japan. (Fg2)

Paper cranes, folded as prayers for peace. Peace Park, Hiroshima, Japan. (Fg2)

Paper folding is something that interests undergraduates, as evidenced by the origami club at MIT, OrigaMIT (, so it may suggest a new type of active learning for incorporation into university courses, especially those in math and engineering.

Maker Faire as a Venue for Student Work

Maker Faires showcase D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself) work often with a technology slant. Makers present work that ranges from Arduino projects ( to 3-D printers to biotech projects to textile arts to robots, and the faires take place around the world.

The World Maker Faire ( will be at the New York Hall of Science ( in Queens, NY, this September. The Call for Entries ( closes July 28. Interestingly, student projects top the list of the type of topics they’d like to see included.

For folks in the Boston area, there will be a Mini Maker Faire in Somerville, Massachusetts in October.

Clothing created by a 3D Printer

Clothing created by a 3D Printer

Imagining the Brain

A recent paper by David Hay et al. of Kings College London ( examines the role of scientific illustration as evidence of expertise, and considers pedagogical techniques that can lead undergraduates to produce illustrations indistinguishable from those of PIs.

Image shows tyramide-filled neurons from the cingulate cortex of mouse brain. (

Tyramide-filled neurons from the cingulate cortex of mouse brain.

An understanding of invisible structures, processes and phenomena requires a level of abstraction that presents a challenge to the typical undergraduate student. The authors show how activities that support the creativity and imaginations of students can lead to expert-level work.Their interventions required the students to use imagination and movement to see themselves as their biological subjects, in this case brain cells undergoing development. The activities appeared to provide students with insight into the research perspective without the need for benchwork. After participation in the activities, student drawings were more likely to represent a variety of types of neurons and to demonstrate the creative approach, imagination, and hypothesis-building typical of PIs. They include elements of neuron identity that are not visible. It is suggested that illustrations by PIs, which to a certain extent represent their original conceptual models, may fuse objective scientific illustration with elements of design.

As an introduction to their argument, the authors present useful reviews of the topics of Science Studies and of Science Visual Culture. They also reference Objectivity (Daston & Galison, 2007), and use the framework presented therein for what they describe as the three types of representation in science: Truth-to-Nature, Mechanical Objectivity, and Trained Judgement. Benjamin Cohen gives a clear summary of this framework in his blog post on the topic:

The authors conclude that

“… an ability to label what is otherwise invisible, functions as the code marking-off a boundary between real professionals and novices or the boundary between the members of a specific laboratory culture and outsiders. Our current data reinforce this view suggesting that there is an imaginative constant to experts’ images, depending on their embodiment of relationships toward objects experienced thorough the material realization of experiments (see Radder, 2012).  “