Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Not Just a Pretty Picture

Photo: Bob Turner

Scientific illustrator Graham Johnson's career reached a high-water mark this week when he was named winner of the illustration award in Science magazine's Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge. But even as the award was being announced, Johnson (pictured left) was heading off to California to begin Ph.D. studies at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego. It may seem like a career switch, but Johnson's goal is to put his visualization skills to good use in his scientific research.

'"As an undergrad, I always loved art and science," Johnson says. "I was headed down a biology track, not really floundering but not really knowing what I would do." But then he discovered a profession that seemed to be an ideal match for both his interests: medical and scientific illustration. "I figured out how I could combine the two in a practical career." Johnson completed his degree--a self-designed major that was "about three quarters of a biology major and three quarters of an art major"--and headed off to graduate school at Johns Hopkins University's (JHU's) program in medical and biological illustration where he learned how to blend his two passions into a viable professional career. Now, 8 years after he finished his master's degree at JHU, Johnson is going back to science, but he hopes to use computer simulation to help understand the intricate dynamics of cellular processes.

The Art of Scientific Illustration

Johnson's approach to scientific illustration blends old and new technologies and merges often-divergent goals. For his winning entry in the Visualization Challenge--a cell preparing to transmit a chemical signal across a synapse (see the accompanying image, which originally appeared in the HHMI Bulletin)--Graham used a micrograph and other data, including 3D models made from sequential slices of brain tissue, to compose the image with pencil sketches. He then recreated the foreground elements of the final sketch using 3D-modeling software, which allowed him to add color and textures that evoke scanning electron micrographs while emphasizing the desired elements of the drawing. Johnson took a few artistic liberties, simplifying the drawing for the sake of clarity. "We probably only show about 15-20%of the density; otherwise all that space in the background there would be filled with an indecipherable web of other neurons and supporting cells." The resulting image is both striking and instructive, atmospheric, and (in the most important respects) true to the data used to create it.

"It gives us all the information we need, but at she same time brings an aesthetic, a refinement to the illustration," says Felice Frankel, a member of the panel of judges. "That's an approach that I think is really important: To get the viewer to want to look, and then to ask questions."

A Unique Artistic Opportunity

Johnson's approach to illustration matured during a formative 4-year partnership with cell biologist Tom Pollard, then the president of the Salk Institute; Pollard has since moved on to Yale University. At Salk, Johnson prepared the illustrations for a new cell-biology textbook Pollard was writing with William Earnshaw ( Cell Biology, Saunders, 2004)."Although Graham was untested beyond his formal training," says Pollard, "his professors thought that he had the talent to take on a major project. He was also courageous (or naïve) enough to commit single-handedly to the enormous task ahead, starting with a blank page on which he created a novel view of the inter-workings of the cell."

Despite the book's relative brevity--at about 900 pages, "it's one of the more slender [cell-biology textbooks]," says Johnson--it contains many figures--600, according to Johnson, though Pollard says "more than a thousand."

Johnson rewarded Pollard's confidence, morphing during the project "from our illustrator into a full-fledged contributor to the book." Pollard and Earnshaw ended up putting Johnson's name on the cover--"a first (as far as I know) for a contemporary molecular or cellular biology textbook," says Pollard--and describing him in the acknowledgments as "our third author."

It was a unique opportunity artistically. "I was kind of in the right place at the right time for what was viewed as a pretty unique project, to have one illustrator homogenously illustrate an entire textbook." Johnson says

Pollard encouraged Johnson to take a rigorous approach--an approach pioneered by Johnson's Scripps mentor David Goodsell--"to illustrate everything to scale, use crystal structures whenever they were available, approaches considered unique at the time." Pollard adds that Johnson "brought to life my dream of illustrating cellular structure and function with all of the molecules drawn to scale-- the first anatomically correct view of cellular function at the molecular level."

An Extraordinary Scientific Apprenticeship
The intensive--and extensive--nature of the job, coupled to the rigorous approach and Pollard's active mentorship, added up to a unique educational experience. "I was hand-taught by Tom Pollard, essentially step-by-step as we went through. He would sit down for pretty much every concept and explain it to me or have me try to explain it to him; he would read my face and figure out whether I actually got it, or was just saying I got it."

Apart from Pollard's intense scrutiny, Johnson was tested in another way: it's hard to fake it when you have to draw an accurate picture. "You have to fill in details that a lot of even experts don't think about on a daily basis, and you're pulling together expertise from a number of labs and publications to try and create one unique comprehensive figure." "Graham insisted on understanding the cell biology, biochemistry and biophysics contained in each illustration," says Pollard, "so that he could communicate this vision to our readers. By the time he finished, Graham had become a sophisticated cell biologist, capable of transforming a rough sketch into a polished final figure with little direction. It was, says Johnson, "a great experience to be taught by one of the best teachers in the field."

After finishing the textbook, Johnson continued his freelance work, combining static illustration with animation. But his work with Pollard had rekindled his interest in science and soon he decided to return to college. "I cut my work back significantly and put myself back through college to fulfill all the prerequisites towards … going back to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. in biology on a biophysical track." In addition to courses he had never taken, Johnson had to re-visit subjects he had long forgotten. He took almost all the basic science prerequisites--three semesters of calculus, two each of physics, biochemistry, organic chemistry, and physical chemistry, and all the associated labs--all while "trying to work enough to survive."

Not Just Another Pretty Picture
Johnson is returning to graduate school because he hopes to head his own laboratory someday. His professional ambitions require credentials that will allow him to obtain "the kind of funding that only the government can provide, and it only provides such funding to people with Ph.D.s. And I don't have the detailed biophysical knowledge yet to pull these things off. That's why I'm heading down this route."

Though he knows where he wants to end up, Johnson is trusting his advisors to help him get there. "I'm leaving [my goals] relatively vague and relying on the scientific community at Scripps to help me hone them and make them thesis worthy." But his long-term goal is audacious: "to combine kinetic data and structure data, throw all that into a virtual 3D space, give it an amount of random energy, and try to simulate experimental outcomes, or at the very least visualize molecular interactions within the cellular realm."

Johnson will be studying science at Scripps but he will not be leaving visualization behind. At Scripps, he will work with scientist and artist David Goodsell under the direction of Art Olson. He also hopes to continue his career as a medical illustrator while in graduate school, as long as it's consistent with his scientific training regimen and the requirements of his mentors and the Scripps administration. "They've given me the green light to go ahead and work over the next year," he says, in order to fulfill artistic commitments already made to organizations like HHMI, which published his award-winning image. "I'm going to try to convince them that this is part of my future career and important to the field, because each of these illustrations is something unique that's never been visualized before. I'm not just drawing another pretty picture."

2005 Visualization Challenge

Science magazine, with the National Science Foundation, organized this year's Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge to encourage and celebrate imaginative use of graphics to communicate scientific achievement. Here are links to pages with more about the competition:

- Science's main page about this year's competition with links to each article.

- Slide show with all winning images

- Science's article about Graham Johnson's winning entry

A separate subscription may be required to view these pages.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers