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SciArt scribbles: The molecule painter

Many scientists embrace the artistic medium to infuse new ideas into their scientific works. With science-art collaborations, both artists and scientists challenge their ways of thinking as well as the process of artistic and scientific inquiry. Can art hold a mirror to science? Can it help frame and answer uncomfortable questions about science: its practice and its impact on society? Do artistic practices inform science? In short, does art aid evidence?

Nature India’s blog series ‘SciArt Scribbles’ will try to answer some of these questions through the works of some brilliant Indian scientists and artists working at this novel intersection that offers limitless possibilities. You can follow this online conversation with #SciArtscribbles .

Shraddha Nayak paints to bring clarity to complex biological phenomena. A PhD. from the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the Medical College of Wisconsin, USA, here’s how this Bangalore-based biomedical scientist and illustrator finds stunning art in everyday biological processes.

Shraddha Nayak

Towards the end of my doctoral studies in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I was strolling down the city sidewalks one chilly evening and came across a beautiful art store. The last time I made an oil-painting was in middle school. At that moment, I felt like a small fish that fell for the bait. Of course, I was enticed into buying a few paints that looked and smelled delicious.

At first, I made some random art, but those days my mind was swirling with lymphocytes and macrophages and interleukin production and it made an appearance on my canvas (Image 1 below).

Image 1: Oil colour depiction of the dendritic cell (far right) frantically prodding the sleepy lymphocyte to wake up: “We have been invaded. You gotta head to battleground NOW buddy”

S. Nayak

I liked how it turned out and made a few more. I am not sure if this helped me with research, but time slowed down while painting and I was wrapped in peace.

Visual bias

Research on adenosine biology (my laboratory interest during PhD) has been going on for almost 90 years. The amount of literature that exists is phenomenal and I often found myself drowning in it. I wanted to put my readings in one frame, in one big picture to see how all these studies connected. I also relished making graphs and little representations of data, and spending hours under the microscope to get the perfect shot, more than doing wet-lab experiments.

Consequently, the day I stumbled upon a whole fascinating world of biomedical visualisation, I was off the diving board. Since then, I have realised the significance of design. Look at our good old paper clip for example, or an iron box or a spoon among numerous others. We tend to take these products for granted, but they are designed so efficiently that within milliseconds of laying sight on them we know what they are meant for. The same applies to scientific figures and illustrations. There are design strategies one could follow, that helps the message jump out instantly at readers.

For example, see Image 2 below. The scientist wanted a depiction of the above discovery in context of cardiovascular disease. I used colour sparingly, only for the main characters, to enable distinction between wild type and mutant. The background contextual illustration being important to convey the message has been presented, but greyed out to prevent distraction from the main point.

Image 2: 2D illustration for a scientific paper showing how somatic mutations in hematopoietic stem cells can undergo clonal expansion and lead to cardiovascular disease.

S. Nayak

Thinking 3D

Cellular and molecular biology are very visual. Textbooks and scientific articles are replete with diagrams and illustrations. We have come a long way since the hand-drawings of the Renaissance period to digital renditions to communicate research and hypotheses. What we study, more often than not, involves looking at structure and/or dynamics and/or interactions from the bustling lives of characters that are invisible.

We only see a part of this drama unfold under the microscope. Why restrict ourselves to 2D thinking when our data is 3D, and when we have 3D tools to visualise the above facets? A few clever and creative scientists have developed (and are constantly expanding) ways of exploiting 3D animation software for research and its communication.

These are the very 3D programs used to create animated Disney-Pixar movies, or even used for automobile and architectural design beside other uses. They enable us to create context, test our hypotheses, consolidate data and simulate reality. And so, my journey as a molecular animator began. For example, see Image 3, where I use 3D animation to to help a lipid researcher visualise structural facets of a high-density lipoprotein (HDL) receptor.

Image 3: A 3D animation snapshot image to partially solve 3D structure, oligomerisation and ligand-binding of the HDL receptor.

S. Nayak

These programmes also provide wings to my imagination in fun ways. Working on an animation around a popular family of proteins found at the cell membrane (G protein-coupled receptor or GPCR), I drifted a little to create Image 4, from the adenosine receptor point of view, considering how much coffee the world drinks. (Caffeine, the stimulant found in coffee binds to adenosine receptors temporarily preventing drowsiness.  Adenosine receptors are an example of  GPCRs.)

Image 4: A 3D illustration titled “Why does it always caffeine on me?”

S. Nayak

I am not sure if I am creating art. The cell and molecular representations that we currently use, appear to be pieces of art on their own. Don’t you agree?

[Shraddha Nayak can be contacted at She tweets from @Na_y_ak ]

Suggested reading:

SciArt scribbles: Coupling creation and analysis with collages

SciArt scribbles: Technology to aid dance

SciArt scribbles: Music to tackle PhD blues

SciArt scribbles: Playing science out

Artists on science: scientists on art


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