Harvard cell biologist Janet Iwasa is a molecular animator who uses advanced computer graphics to visually represent the stunningly beautiful secret lives of cells. She honed her craft at the Gnomon School of Visual Effects alongside classmates hoping to be Hollywood's next SFX stars. The New York Times profiles Iwasa and several other scientist/animators who are turning raw data into striking films about the hidden world around and inside us. From the New York Times:
To compose her animations, Dr. Iwasa draws on publicly available resources like the Protein Data Bank, a comprehensive and growing database containing three-dimensional coordinates for all of the atoms in a protein. Though she no longer works in a lab, Dr. Iwasa collaborates with other scientists.
"All that we had before – microscopy, X-ray crystallography – were all snapshots," said Tomas Kirchhausen, a professor in cell biology at Harvard Medical School and a frequent collaborator with Dr. Iwasa. "For me, the animations are a way to glue all this information together in some logical way. By doing animation I can see what makes sense, what doesn't make sense. They force us to confront whether what we are doing is realistic or not." For example, Dr. Kirchhausen studies the process by which cells engulf proteins and other molecules. He says animations help him picture how a particular three-legged protein called clathrin functions within the cell.
If there is a Steven Spielberg of molecular animation, it is probably Drew Berry, a cell biologist who works for the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia. Mr. Berry's work is revered for artistry and accuracy within the small community of molecular animators, and has also been shown in museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. In 2008, his animations formed the backdrop for a night of music and science at the Guggenheim Museum called "Genes and Jazz."
"Scientists have always done pictures to explain their ideas, but now we're discovering the molecular world and able to express and show what it's like down there," Mr. Berry said. "Our understanding is just exploding."