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Visualizing Science at University of Toronto

The marriage of science and illustration goes back to the earliest of scientific publications. Just flip through any of the works by giants like Galileo and Darwin and you can clearly see the impact that visualization of concepts, processes, and structures has had in our understanding of discoveries. Scientific illustration today is a viable career option for many who have talent in both art and science and may be looking for a way to combine their two talents.

One of only five certified programs of its kind in the world and the only one in Canada, the Biomedical Communications (BMC) Masters program at the University of Toronto (U of T) prepares students for careers in a range of industries.

"I think that people who come into our program, deep in their hearts, are artists. They might have a science degree, but they have a real passion for visualizing science and using their visual talents to educate," says Linda Wilson-Pauwels, Director of the BMC program at U of T.

Graduates can expect to find work in fields like medical publishing, pharmaceutical animation, and even the gaming industry. The BMC program has come a long way since its inception 60 years ago, when it only offered diplomas. Now, thanks in large measure to advancements in technology and a greater demand for science visualization, the faculty has implemented a successful undergraduate and Masters program that goes beyond the medical sciences.

"We don't just do medical illustration; we also do scientific visualizations in areas like ichthyology and entomology, and now we're even branching out to forensic science and anthropology," explains Wilson-Pauwels. "Any science that needs a visual recording, we're interested in."

Drawing on Science

Fields of specialty include biomedical 3-dimensional design with full motion visualization of structures and events at different scales. This is where digital models and animations bring to life otherwise difficult concepts. This may involve visualizing things at the molecular level, analyzing structure/function relationships, or maybe doing a fly-through of the brain.

"Anatomia" an interactive anatomy program by Jodie Jenkinson (BMC faculty)

Multimedia has become pervasive throughout science, and e-learning has become very much in demand. So other training at U of T concentrates on media interactivity and learning how to develop programs for the Internet and DVD. Universities are developing online courses that need to be illustrated, museums and science centers have interactive onsite displays, and medical professionals are going online for accreditations. "This is a huge growth area, not just for patient information, but for online learning in general."

Other courses reveal the secrets behind creating surgical illustrations. Students get to go into the operating room and sketch, and create either still images for text books or animated programs to teach suturing or a particular operation. The program even offers courses in demonstrative evidence, where you can learn to create illustrations for the courtroom to help explain medical cases to a jury, and help them understand an operation or an injury through images and animations.

IT Revolution

Multimedia technology has reinvigorated the world of scientific illustration, taking it from the traditional tools of pen and paper to mouse and monitor. The workstations at BMC are Apple Mac driven and loaded with industry-standard software. Students get full training on image processing programs like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, as well as digital animation tools like Cinema 4D and Maya 3D animation.

"Naive T lymphocytes homing to a peripheral lymph node via high endothelial venules" by Michael Corrin (MScBMC Year I student)

Most students enter the program with some proficiency in using technology but Wilson-Pauwels says that regardless what software they are comfortable using, her school teaches the basic theory of communication through motion and visualization. "The reality of the industry is that when they get out they will move or switch software but they will still know all the basic principles," she adds.

Wilson-Pauwels believes that while her profession has benefited greatly from the digital age, it has not pushed aside traditional techniques altogether. Traditional storyboards need to be fine-tuned and checked so that the science content is accurate. Only then is the material ready to be digitally rendered and animated.

"Angiogenesis within an artificial skin scaffolding in burn wounds" by Janice Chan (MScBMC graduate)

"The computer is just a rendering tool; just like how we used to render in airbrush and water color, now we render on computers."

The Right Stuff

Currently, 18 students are enrolled in the 2-year Masters program, coming from all over the world including the United States, China, Japan, and Australia. Nearly 90% of the accepted applicants have a science degree already, many with Masters and a few with PhDs. About 8 to 10 new applicants are accepted each year, with hopes of growing this number to 16 over the course of the next few years. The program seeks students with scientific knowledge on the theory that if you don't understand the content, then you can't communicate it. "This year alone we have students with backgrounds in organic chemistry, pharmacology, engineering, and industrial design. It definitely makes for an interesting cohort of students."

Anyone lacking basic knowledge in a certain field gets a chance to brush up. Within the program students learn medical anatomy, neurology, and pathology from experts in their respective fields. "Our atmosphere here is quite relaxed and open. If you're missing something in immunology, for instance, you crack a book or go down the hall and talk to an immunologist. It's amazing how many faculty help our students."

Winnie Yu (MScBMC Year II student) and Marc Dryer (BMC faculty)

Prospective applicants need to present a portfolio of their work. The faculty looks for creativity and an imaginative mind that can illustrate a situation in a fresh way. "You have to be creative enough to show it from a different angle, with different views, and different content--and that's a challenge!" cautions Wilson Pauwels. But, while nonlinear thinking is very much required, linear thinking is, too. "We're looking for someone who can tell a visual story without gaps, and this tells a lot about how a person thinks," she adds. Applicants are asked to draw a set of test illustrations that together form a storyboard of a process like cleaning a fish, or tying a shoelace.

Job Market

So what happens after graduation? If the number of employed alumni for U of T is any indication, future career prospects look very promising. Wilson-Pauwels boasts a 100% placement of its graduates last year with a diverse group of employers. Some got work doing medical and legal illustration, while others found employment at companies that produce textbooks or animations for pharmaceutical companies. A few went on to develop educational websites or got hired back at U of T as professors through research grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

Funding for illustrators of science is also looking up, according to Wilson-Pauwels. Canada's research councils are realizing that images are more powerful than words when teaching science. For the last 5 years, CIHR has offered a Health Research Communications Awards (formerly Graduate Science Writer Scholarships) worth $21,000 a year for two years. Three students from the BMC program currently hold this award.

To succeed in this fast paced discipline, Wilson-Pauwels believes, you have to have passion and a dedication to blending the very different worlds of art and science. A lot of young scientists that come to her program tend to be good in science, but failed to find in science an outlet for their artistic inclinations. "These are the students that thought they wanted a career in science, but had this love of art," reveals Wilson-Pauwels. "But when they find our program, the light bulb goes on, and they know immediately that this is for them."

For more information on University of Toronto's Biomedical Communications program, check out the program's Web site.

Andrew Fazekas is Canadian Editor at Next Wave and may be reached at