Science worth a thousand words

Published October 01 2017

Danielle Snowflack designed and stitched this bacteriophage in 2012 when she was a graduate student at Princeton University. images courtesy of Danielle Snowflack

In my experience, most communication training for scientists focuses on our words. As scientists, we need to read, write and evaluate scientific literature. We need to communicate our results to all audiences, from our grandparents to our peers to our collaborators. We must learn to stand in front of an audience and engage people with our spoken words. We always will focus on our research in the laboratory, but communication skills are crucial for success in science.

(And as the new manager of public outreach at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, I have to add that our course “The Art of Science Communication” is an amazing way to hone your verbal presentation skills.)

However, I’ve always been a picture person. As an undergraduate studying natural sciences at Muhlenberg College, my notebooks were full of annotated drawings of whatever I was learning in class. I was also an art major — some of my paintings were inspired by microscopic studies from my biology labs. I didn’t know there was a way to combine the two, nor was I pursuing it. Like many optimistic undergrads, I was going to be a biology professor at an institution like my alma mater. Art would continue to be my hobby.

I earned my Ph.D. from Princeton University, where I studied the mechanisms of translational control during development with Elizabeth Gavis. Throughout my graduate work, art served as a pressure valve when the stress of research got to be too much. Toward the end of my graduate career, I realized that the professorate just wasn’t for me. But then what do you do after you defend? I knew science could be blended with art, and I even considered pursuing medical or scientific illustration after I finished my Ph.D. I couldn’t shake my desire to be an educator though, so I pursued an amazing opportunity as director of education at Edvotek Inc., a biotechnology company dedicated to creating hands-on science experiences for educators. (For more on my experience in K–12 education, read about my career insights in the August 2015 issue of ASBMB Today.)

In my role at Edvotek, I explored STEAM education — a movement in K–12 education that integrates art into the traditional science, technology, engineering and math curriculum. When done well, STEAM encourages learners to think creatively about challenges in STEM fields. I stumbled upon the “SciArt” community online while pursuing some experiment ideas, and the breadth of work blew my mind. The arts were being used in so many ways to communicate science, from data visualizations and microscopy pictures to fine art and cartoons and even the occasional science dance. These were visual ways to capture the public’s interest in science and, hopefully, to create discourse on the different STEM fields. I was hooked.

As an undergraduate at Muhlenberg College in 2001, Danielle Snowflack captured her observations of flower buds under a microscope using acrylic paint.

I’m thrilled now to be taking over for Geoff Hunt as the manager of public outreach at the ASBMB. It’s always scary to make a career change, but I couldn’t have landed in a better place. I’m excited to bring my experience as a scientist, an educator and a communicator to this organization. I hope to encourage scientists to seek all avenues possible to communicate their work, including the arts. While my interest is in the visual arts, literature, music and even dance can be inspired by science. Here are a few ways for us to engage our creative side.

Are you a Ph.D. candidate in a science-related field? Do you love to dance? Each year, the American Association for the Advancement of Science runs the “Dance your Ph.D.” contest. The 2016 winners can be found online at sciencemag.org.

Do you ever sit at the microscope and admire the beauty of biology? Send your images to the FASEB BioArt contest at faseb.org.

Looking for inspiration through social media? Check out the #SciArt tag on Twitter or Instagram and prepare to have your mind blown.

Not an artist? Hire one. Science illustrators can help scientists tell their story in a different way. Learn more in the ASBMB Today article.

Are you creating SciArt? Share it with us here or with me on Twitter @drsnowflack. You might be featured on the outreach blog here or in the pages of ASBMB Today.

Danielle Snowflack Danielle Snowflack is the manager of public outreach at the ASBMB.