Scientific Illustration and Animation for Research Scientists


One of the crucial tasks of a research scientist is reporting and communicating about his work. This is vital for cutting edge research; it is crucial to gain insights from other experts, to get a discussion going, to improve, to be able to get some funding, to convince other colleagues that your research is good. Imagine that communication is not there. Then you will immediately appreciate its importance. There would be a lot of individuals all having a single piece of the puzzle in their hands, but nobody seeing the complete picture. Even with communication and interaction between scientists, the complete picture is often very obscure and vague. So it is not only the presence of communication, it is the efficiency of communication and understanding that is essential in the scientific world. There are many ways this can be achieved, but one of the most efficient methods is visual communication. Remember the cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words. Visual communication in the scientific world is still a broad concept; this article will focus on scientific illustration and animation for the research scientist.

Graphical abstract

One of the recent movements in communicating data in peer-reviewed scientific journals is the introduction of graphical abstracts. A graphical abstract is the summary of the main findings depicted in one concise illustration. It should help readers to immediately catch the main points or the take home message of the article. The graphical abstract is gaining ground for obvious reasons; it is a way of visual communication, a very effective method. Readers love to quickly grasp the main points of an article just by looking at a clear and concise illustration. It is a natural way and it does not consume lots of energy.

For authors graphical abstracts are very powerful too, as an attention getter. Indeed, the use of graphical abstracts is a very new concept and still unexplored. In other words, visual abstracts have the power to get more scientists to read the actual article.

Despite the many advantages, graphical abstracts are not often used because of the simple reason that conveying scientific data in a visual way is not always part of the skill set of a research scientist. Moreover, these illustrations need a certain level of esthetic quality too, reducing the group of qualified scientists even more. Sad but true, only a minority of research scientists has good graphical design skills. These facts are not very helpful for the success of graphical abstracts in the scientific community and consequently one might imagine that they will have a hard time maintaining their growth.

Scientific presentations

Going back to the skill set of a research scientist: communication by means of scientific presentation is certainly one that a good research scientist must have. All research scientists have to present in their career, going from informal lab meetings to prestigious international conferences, and most scientists will have to publicly defend their PhD thesis sooner or later. The purpose in its most basic form is always the same: the presenter communicates his data. But even though the purpose is always the same, the target is missed quite often. We all know that there is a huge difference in the quality of these talks. Everybody will agree that the best talks are always accompanied with declarative, useful and concise visual support. Microscopic images and graphical representation of data are the most commonly used, but declarative schemes, scientific illustrations and animations are extremely useful in this context too. Every research scientist should use them; it will make their presentations much better.

Scientific animations

We have all seen these mind-blowing high-end scientific animations. The type that is exceptionally useful for understanding difficult scientific matter, the type that explains a whole chapter of a textbook in 3 minutes of video. Not a lot of research scientists use this kind of animation in their own work to communicate data, because they do not have access to it or do not have enough financial resources. Very professional and specialized production companies generate these movies, mainly for pharmaceutical companies. The research scientist is most often not the primary target customer.

In non-pharma labs or in basic research labs that typically have less financial resources, there is a big gap between these high-end videos and no video at all. There is almost no intermediate level, a level that would be perfectly suited for a research scientist. Indeed, new data are found in research every day and consequently  working hypotheses and theories change quite often. Animation of these theories is not worth the investment most of the time since it changes so rapidly. This is where another level of scientific animation comes into play, a level that allows rapid production and rapid modification. This would allow a research scientist to actively revise the working hypothesis and theories, and ultimately this could lead to new insights and discoveries. This is a more dynamic and flexible way of communicating theories.

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