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Science communication with metaphors and a paintbrush

Updated: Jun 16, 2021

The unexpected ties between healthcare, biomedicine research, and art.

“Science provides an understanding of a universal experience. Arts are a universal understanding of a personal experience. They are both are a part of us and a manifestation of the same thing. The arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity.” –Mae Jemison

Vanderbilt Alumna, Eve Moll, BA’20, shared this quote with her audience in her workshop on June 7, which detailed the connections between art and science, particularly healthcare and biomedical research. The workshop divided the connection between art and healthcare into three categories: communication, human connection, and technical/observational skills.

In honing in on the communication aspect, Moll described art as “a vehicle for information about health, medicine, complicated topics,” whether it be for researchers to communicate their ideas to each other, for the promotion of health literacy, through communication with the general public, or for the aesthetic and visual representation of data and concepts.

For Moll, the first thing that comes to mind when she imagines art as a vehicle for science communication is cover art, specifically cover art for scientific journals such as Cell. She describes cover art as the key to engaging an audience and capturing their imaginations, whether they reside inside or outside the scientific community.

Covers from the magazine Cell, as described in the article below
Cell Covers by Misaki Ouchida, Eric Jacobson, and Bruna di Giacomo (right to left)

The first cover was created by artist Misaki Ouchida, with the goal of capturing the featured paper’s essence. As Moll explained, Ouchida is depicting the impact of turbulence on platelet biogenesis. Platelets are tiny blood cells that aid the body in forming clots to help stop bleeding. However, many diseases can cause low platelet counts, causing patients to regularly receive blood transfusions. The study that Ouchida illustrates shows a new way that utilizes turbulence in order to increase platelet quantity.

The blue woman is a metaphor for megakaryocytes, cells in the bone marrow responsible for making platelets. According to Ouchida, she “decided to paint the Gogh style background to imply turbulence.” The red petals impacted by the woman’s turbulent blowing represent the creation and distribution of platelets on the blood.

In communicating science through written mediums, journalists often use metaphors and other evocative literary devices to explain complex concepts to a general audience. The usage of metaphors allows for a level of understanding that would not be achieved with traditional scientific descriptions laden with jargon and unfamiliar concepts. Moreover, metaphors allow these unfamiliar concepts to unravel themselves in the mind of the reader, a process catalyzed by the usage of familiar comparisons like blowing a handful of petals. When translated into the visual medium of cover art, this visual analogy allows the reader to pick up this issue of Cell, turn to the featured article’s page, and go into the science with potentially a visual understanding of what the process of turbulence mimics.

The other covers demonstrate a similar technique. Eric Jacobson, the director of Threestory Studio, generated the image on the second cover: a conceptual illustration of the confirmation of the STING receptor protein, an important signaling molecule for certain cancer processes. This confirmation, as Moll points out, is kind of like the changes butterfly wings undergo. This change inspired the image. As Threestory Studio’s blogpost points out, “You can see the rough outline of the molecule in the wings of the largest butterfly.” Though the metaphor is not as direct as the comparison in the first cover, the idea of the butterfly representing protein confirmation gives a concrete depiction of an idea that may develop in abstraction in the minds of some readers.

The last cover, designed by Bruna di Giacomo, a PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing, materializes what is already an abstract concept: life. To illustrate the research of RNA’s effect on the lifespan of Drosophila, better known as the genus of flies, a fly sits on a clock that represents its lifespan. On the clock, a sequence of RNA nucleotides replaces time, as if to say the life of the fly is no longer governed by traditional numerical measurements of time, but instead this RNA. The specific sequence is to represents the function of specific circular RNA (circSfl), during the aging process. Additionally, the watercolor circles patterning the cover represent circular RNA. This depiction allows for an image association to pair with a complicated and at times abstract concept: the alteration of life.

In an interview about the cover, di Giacomo said, “The PhD is mostly about doing science. But it’s also important to think about how to convey your message to the scientific audience or even to the broader public. Combining science and art is a wonderful and fun way to communicate your science.” Effective cover art is one way to aid a reader’s understanding of scientific literature while merging the values of both the sciences and the arts. Moreover, it shines a light on the importance of comprehensibility and removes a false dichotomy that has been forged between the sciences and the arts; between research and aesthetic value. It does this by reminding us there is more than one lens from which to view, engage with, digest, and communicate a subject.

To evoke Mae Jemison’s aforementioned words, if both science and art are the “avatars of human creativity,” to simultaneously engage with both with the goal of communicating the same idea allows for a better understanding of the ad rem topic, and the human experience at large.

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