Q&A with Vikram Mulligan


In 1961, Irving Geis illustrated the sperm whale myoglobin molecule based on the crystal structure deduced by John Kendrew and colleagues. This iconic painting is touted as the first molecular illustration. While early illustrators like Geis used watercolors and ink, modern illustrators craft their designs on computers. Vikram Mulligan, a biochemist with a talent for digital art, captures the intricate structure and exquisite contours of a variety of biological systems in his illustrations.

Mulligan is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington. His research focuses on protein folding and misfolding mechanisms and the design of artificial peptides for therapeutic purposes.

Through his art, Mulligan has depicted biological entities, such as protein cages, inhibitors against influenza hemagluttinin and prions. He also has created animations of protein folding for a lecture series on bovine spongiform encephalopathy (also known as mad cow disease) presented by science broadcaster and writer Jay Ingram. Besides scientific illustrations, Mulligan loves science fiction and often depicts spaceships and distant worlds in his art.

Designing 3-D digital illustrations is more than a hobby for Vikram Mulligan: It is a creative process that fuels his scientific thinking. In this interview, Mulligan explains how his art inspires his scientific work. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A rendering of an artificial two-component protein cage designed by David Baker’s laboratory. Reference.

What is your research focus?

My doctoral work at the University of Toronto focused on the unfolding and misfolding processes of superoxide dismutase, a protein involved in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. I also studied the general mechanisms of protein folding and misfolding.

My current work at David Baker’s laboratory at the University of Washington deals with the development of new computational algorithms for the design of cross-linked peptides and artificial heteropolymers with rigid structures.

How did you get into science?

My parents were a big influence. My mother is a geneticist and my father, although not a scientist, has a deep interest in astronomy, an interest that I inherited. They instilled the value of academic excellence and a love for learning and exploring the world. I always wanted to be a scientist, but I did not know what field until I got to university. I majored in physics and biochemistry for my bachelor’s degree. I decided to stick with biochemistry for Ph.D. I think there is nothing more satisfying than exploring the world and being able to say, "Yes, I am the first person to know this new fact."

How did you get started with digital illustration?

I used to build lot of plastic models of spacecrafts when I was a kid. I always liked science-fiction movies, particularly the work of special-effect artists of the ’60s and ’70s. When I watched "Star Wars," part of me said, "Wow, what a great movie," and another part said, "How did they do that?"

So I read a lot about how special effects were done. I taught myself how to do 3-D computer graphics. Not only was it a fun activity and a way of distracting myself, but it turned out to be a very useful skill eventually.

Illustration of an artificially designed protein, HB36.3 (shown in blue), binding to influenza hemagglutinin (shown in red). Reference.

How do illustrations benefit science?

Illustrations can be educational. The figures and graphs in a scientific paper are not informative to a layperson; they are too detailed and technical. But illustrations are a visually appealing means to convey the science behind a concept.

What tools do you commonly use for your artwork?

In general, I use whatever tool does a particular part of the job well. For example, when illustrating molecules, I start with PyMol to set up the surface and cartoon geometry. Then I use Blender, a free, open-source 3-D program, to transform the crude-looking representation into a polished version. I create different versions of the molecule with little tweaks in texture, rendering or lighting and superimpose the different versions in Photoshop for final compositing.

Did your interest in digital art and illustration play any role in choosing protein design and protein folding for your research?

There is a visual component to structural biochemistry. I like that there is something concrete to look at and manipulate in 3-D. So I do believe that my interest in visual art and 3-D graphics led me to this particular field. The same skills that I use in my art also help me visualize, design and manipulate 3-D models of proteins in my work.

A rendering of the prion protein, PrP. Images courtesy of Vikram Mulligan

How does your artwork influence your scientific work?

When I am working on a (nonscientific) illustration purely for enjoyment, that is when my mind wanders and I come up with some creative ideas or solutions to problems in my research. Recently, I was trying to debug a piece of code (that I am developing for peptide design). The source of the particularly tricky bug only occurred to me while I was working on some completely unrelated artwork.

Tell us about the nonscientific themes in your art?

My father’s interest in astronomy has a lot to do with my interest in science fiction and space exploration. Science fiction often gets the science wrong. But at the same time, the imaginative aspect of science-fiction movies and stories is very appealing to me. Picturing a better world made possible through science or imagining the possibilities of science is why I like science fiction so much. I explore these ideas through nonscientific illustrations, such as ones of space exploration and space ships, and not battles.

What are your plans moving forward? How will you reconcile science with art in your future endeavors?

I like academia quite a lot. I hope to find a professorship in the next few years and continue working on protein design and folding. I suspect that the artwork will serve the same two purposes it has served so far: One, a fuel for creative thought and a needed distraction from work and two, a means of conveying information about my research.

Indumathi Sridharan Indumathi Sridharan earned her bachelor’s degree in bioinformatics in India. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biochemistry from Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago. She did her postdoctoral work in bionanotechnology at Northwestern University.