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Meet our student-artist: Grayson Ticer

Introduce yourself, your process for creating art, and any tools that you use to generate art

My name is Grayson Ticer, I am a rising senior at Carnegie Mellon University studying for a dual degree in both Decision Science and Fine Arts. My research background is within the cognitive sciences and social decision sciences, which gave me a helpful base for this program. My approach to art, specifically science illustration, was to read the papers provided by the scientists, methodology sections in particular, and sketch out potential designs. After talking with the researchers, I narrowed down what the final products would look like. Further research and sketching led to more feedback and adjustments.

In the next stage, I ended up using a multitude of tools in the creation of my three pieces.

This includes traditional sketching for the preliminary mockups and digital tools to refine the final product. Tools such as Krita (similar to Photoshop), Maya (for 3D modeling), Substance Painter (for texturing the 3D models), and Adobe After Effects (for animation). Some of these programs I was more familiar with than others, such as Krita. But in the case of Adobe After Effects, I had to teach myself how to do certain things, such as smoothing out the frame rates.

Overall, I learned a lot within the research teams themselves, but also, on a practical level, I learned how to do certain technical things to deliver a good product.

How do you communicate with scientists to define or communicate their visual communication needs/goals? I was privileged to work with Dr. Karen Guilemin’s wonderful microbiology team at the University of Oregon. In my case, it was a matter of discussing what images they had created in the past and analyzing what could work better for them and their individual needs. It was evident after the meeting that the visual data they collected, while exciting, could use some clarification.

This was especially true when it came to their presentation and publishing needs. For example, after getting accepted into the journal Cell Host and Microbe, they were invited to submit art for the cover. And while the images they collected were beautiful and cover-worthy, they were also blurry and would not have worked well in a larger format. This is because their methods, fluorescent microscopy, are somewhat difficult to produce. Inspired by these bacterial/mucus captures, I worked to digitally sculpt and texture a 3D model that stayed both true and accurate to the original while incorporating sleeker, more illustrative elements. I believe it’s important to respect the highly technical processes that go into the collection of this data, and so my changes aimed to clarify, not abstract. The second cover I did for them was a bit more interpretive, but they were pleased with the style, and I believe it was faithful to their research.

What feedback have you received on your art and how have you adjusted your design? Mainly, the feedback I have received has had to do with minor coloration changes. Within the 3D model, I was focused on getting accurate colors, yet the initial product was a bit gray and muddy. It didn’t quite pop from a design perspective. After discussing with an artist colleague who also works in a microbiology lab, I came to the conclusion that enhancing the color values did not detract from the scientific merit of the piece. It was a very useful realization to have. Good design choices can bolster a science illustration without affecting the accuracy and faithfulness of the work.

In another example, when I was creating an animation of zebrafish social interactions and their subsequent transmission of bacteria. It was pointed out to me that a different color palette of the fish, originally colored red and blue, would be more colorblind-friendly.A fact that had slipped my mind and was incredibly useful. When taking artistic liberties with data, it is crucial to know what can and cannot be changed. This was a very easy fix that enhanced the experience and accessibility of the research while maintaining scientific integrity.

What is storytelling and what role does it play in science communication and art? I think accessibility is a very important asset within scientific art, but it should, first and foremost, serve to enhance and enrich the research itself. What I mean by this is that not all scientific art should serve to be relatable to laymen. One of my goals for this program was to create visuals that were not only attractive to look at but also aided the researchers in their work. Sometimes that meant creating a good story, but often it meant analyzing what the data physically represented and how we could translate it into images that embodied and enhanced that data. When possible, I did simplify the concepts, which made some of the pieces accessible to a wider audience. But overall, I was more concerned with telling the data’s story.

At the end of the day, the scientists I worked with were satisfied with the visuals I had created, and felt it communicated their research. The future plans for the work are publication in various science magazines, research presentations at conferences, and cover art. All of these platforms will serve to more broadly convey their work not just to the public but also to other scientists within their respective fields.

● Tell us about your experience in the AiR program so far My overall experience within the AiR program was extremely positive. The research team and the individual scientists I met with were all very kind, articulate, and clearly passionate about their work. They were excited to be working with someone who was similarly passionate, and would provide them with the materials to effectively and creatively convey their findings.

The weekly meetings were well organized, efficient, and the hosts were able to offer well-thought-out guidance throughout the process. The weekly agenda emails were also very helpful in terms of keeping track of due dates and recent announcements. Some of the team building exercises were well intentioned but faced some awkwardness when it came to zoom. But on the whole, the program was very well directed.

I am also very satisfied with the final products, not just my own, but getting to see everyone else’s work was incredibly rewarding. The directions people went in were unexpected and inspiring for future projects. It was also interesting to see the various approaches and ideologies behind the pieces. Overall, I feel I have taken away valuable career lessons and hard skills from being a part of the Air program; as well as the many connections among other AiR members and scientists.

What has it been like working on the hub projects? My cohort and I have established a very constructive intellectual space where feedback and discussion are nurtured. It was incredibly helpful to have other artists and scientists to talk to about the process. Our backgrounds and views on the science and art world are also very similar. We all had the goal to create visuals that aided in the discussion of the actual data and represented it as such. Which is why our hub project was easily decided on. Ultimately we thought our hub project would be best suited within the medium of a zine. By creating a zine we can include some of the data and research that informs the images we are making. It not only contextualizes the work but allows for an insight into our personal creation processes, which would serve to strengthen the visual connections between science and art.

Being able to connect the original data with the work was an integral part of making our zine. The zine medium would allow for greater distribution of the pieces, in an easily consumable format, which would expose our work to people who probably never have the chance to engage with microbiology research and processes. Hopefully this zine grants readers some understanding of the science, and an appreciation for what they cannot understand as well.

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