Physician Outlook

Artist: Digizyme, Inc. Knowledge Through Visual Science

The Artist Of Science


Understanding Complex Science Through Beautiful Images

At the intersection between art and science, Digizyme™ is at the forefront of technology and creating new ways to view and teach biological processes. The company was co-founded by Dr. Gaël McGill, a cell and molecular biologist and skilled computer animator, who is a current faculty and Director of Molecular Visualization at Harvard Medical School.

As a young scientist entering the world of research, he noticed an unmet need for scientifically-informed design and visualization services in the research and biopharma space.  As a graduate student seeking a creative outlet outside the long hours at the lab bench, he started Digizyme as a way to fuse together his passion for science, visual arts, animation and multimedia. Since then his company has grown with a global team of dually-trained scientist-artists - highly-skilled illustrators, animators and programmers with graduate degrees in the sciences.

I had the honor of being asked by Physician Outlook magazine to interview Dr. McGill about his work at Digizyme as well as his federally-funded visualization research at Harvard Medical School. The founder of Physician Outlook magazine, pediatrician Dr. Marlene Wust-Smith, had reached out to Dr. McGill for permission to use an image of a eukaryotic cellular landscape his company created that had gone “viral” via social media.

Originally created for Cell Signaling Technology, Inc., and inspired by the stunning art of David Goodsell, this 3D rendered image of a cell was modeled using various datasets from X-ray, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), and cryo-electron microscopy for all of its molecular actors.

It depicts the myriad pathways involved in signal transduction, protein synthesis, endocytosis, vesicular transport, cell-cell adhesion, apoptosis, and other processes.

This beautifully and accurately visualized complexity is what seems to have attracted the attention of so many online: such images are a reminder that each of our cells is a universe of complexity onto itself - a vast stage for an exquisite molecular choreography danced on the picosecond scale.

In order to create complex molecular and cellular environments like the one depicted in the cellular landscape described above, the team at Digizyme has not only leveraged the use of powerful Hollywood 3D modeling and animation software suites like Autodesk Maya, but also created their own software - the free Molecular Maya (mMaya) plugin - to expand these capabilities.

Although Maya is a workhorse of the entertainment industry (used in both cinema and professional animation by studios like Pixar and used in movies like Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and numerous special effects-laden blockbusters), it was never intended for scientific visualization.

When modeling and animating molecules in such environments, one runs the risk of deforming these models in ways that are not possible in nature.  To remedy this, mMaya helps scientific animators not only import scientific datasets into Maya, but also increase the accuracy of its use.  Digizyme has also created a number of specialized mMaya ‘kits’ that expand the software’s functionality and greatly streamline molecular modeling, animation, and simulation.  To support the dissemination of their software and also provide training resources for those interested in learning scientific visualization more broadly, Dr. McGill also launched a web portal called Clarafi (clarafi.com).

These tools and methods open up a new world of understanding for biological structures. Since ‘shape is function’ in biology and molecular movement is also closely tied to function, creating accurate 3D visuals of these processes can enable deeper comprehension.

During our interview, Dr.McGill demonstrated for Dr. Wust-Smith and myself a beautiful visualization of how the SARS CoV-2 spike protein on the surface of the virus responsible for Covid-19 pandemic leads to infection of host cells. He called it the “molecular choreography” of viral entry, portraying a dance that the SARS CoV-2 virus does with the cell in order to fuse membranes and trick it into taking up the viral genome and invading the cellular machinery. This underlying mechanism is similar to how HIV, Influenza and Ebola enter cells. This dynamic visualization offers a transparent peek and deeper understanding into how viruses work and will help educate larger audiences (beyond just scientists) about the mechanics of SARS CoV-2 infection. Dr. McGill also wants viewers to ‘question’ the images in front of them, and be wary about their provenance and veracity. To increase viewers’ awareness of the wealth of data that are used to make such visualizations, his team is in the process of creating an interactive version that embeds numerous annotations and references throughout (something that is unfortunately missing in most visualizations where one is expected to simply accept what is shown).

In 2011, Dr. McGill and his Digizyme team were commissioned by Apple™ to design E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth, a seven-part digital  high school biology textbook. The textbook was co-authored by legendary Harvard Biology Professor Dr. E.O. WIlson, Morgan Ryan and Dr. McGill and became a unique opportunity to design a new learning experience from the ground up while leveraging the power of multimedia for the entire curriculum - from molecules to ecosystems.  Much like StarTrek boldly inspired children of all ages to explore the world of space, E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth, packed with over 500 illustrations, interactives and animations, hopes to do the same for those interested in exploring the Life Sciences. Professors Wilson and McGill met with Steve Jobs himself, who recognized that he wasn’t merely employing a media production company. “At some point,” McGill recalls, “Steve said, ‘No no, I get it, you can talk biology to my Stanford professor friends, you can talk hardware to my iPad team, and you can talk design to my iTunes and iBook software team.” 1

These unique digital textbooks harness the ability to educate in a new, profoundly interactive way and Dr. McGill now also encourages students of all ages to learn about the visualization of science as a learning method in and of itself.  Indeed, there is no better way to test one’s understanding and deepen one’s thinking than to actually create an illustration or animation of a biological process.

In addition to the projects and interests described above, Dr. McGill’s current research at Harvard Medical School is focused on how visualization design can maximize learning outcomes. While Digizyme is the perfect vehicle to engage in ‘real world’ projects for a number of different clients and industries, it is not well-suited to asking more fundamental questions about how we learn from visual media. This is why Dr. McGill has always tried to keep a foot in academia where his research and teaching addresses some of the more unexplored aspects of scientific visualization. For example, with the support of NSF, Dr. McGill and his collaborators Dr. Jodie Jenkinson (University of Toronto Biomedical Communications Programs) and Dr. Susan Keen (University of California at Davis) have recently created the VISABLI Research Collaboration Network for Undergraduate Biology Education which explores the beneficial intersections between the educator, visualizer and educational research communities.

The advancements pioneered by Dr. McGill and others like him come with their own set of challenges, as the world of education has created a model that separates artists from scientists and fails to emphasize the critical cross-fertilization that occurs between these fields. Many agree on the power of visual media for education, but much remains to be improved in the way we select, deploy and analyze visualizations for learning.

Students seldom receive any training in ‘visual literacy’ in science - i.e. an appreciation for the meaning and accuracy of visual representations and how they are created from scientific data.

However, Digizyme™  is looking to break these boundaries with accurate visualization that not only deepen scientific understanding, but also help scientists better recognize the power of visualization in the research endeavor. Beyond its power for communication, visualization is a great way to identify which data are missing and can help scientists better define the boundaries of what they do not yet know. Dr. McGill hopes that, in exploring this use of visualization, the fields of art and science may no longer need to be separated, but rather brought closer together.  As Leonardo Da Vinci once said “Study the science of art.  Study the art of science.  Develop your senses - especially how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.” 

1 https://www.cnet.com/news/pixar-disney-animation-janet-iwasa-smarter-view-of-science/

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