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Andrew Lilja — Wanna be Startin’ Somethin’

Posted on February 10, 2015

Andrew Lilja on how a scientist turned to 3D animation for biomedical communication.

I remember waking with the eager bounce of a child on Christmas morning and running downstairs to find what was awaiting me.

In fact, it was just another regular school day to a 9 year old boy, but before going to bed on the previous night I had asked my dad if he could trace the outline of a stingray onto a poster for a school project (my line work at the time was still in beta-testing). For a chemical scientist he did a pretty good job and with a basic grey lead and some careful finger-smudging for shading I was able to make the creature come to life — it glided effortlessly around on the paper, or at least it felt that way to me.

Looking back, this is probably the earliest memory in which my fascination with both the natural world and visualisation was evident. A few years later, I was diligently moulding the individual body parts of a redback spider out of Fimo to glue together, basically for no other reason than to look at it perched ominously on my bookshelf. With the beauty of hindsight, it’s pretty clear that my two interests developed together through adolescence, which is why it’s not surprising that I found myself studying, perhaps somewhat unconventionally, both visual arts and science in high school. Being a shameless nerd, I’m comfortable sharing the fact that for one graphic design assignment on observational drawing in Year 10, I borrowed a microscope from biology class and recreated it in fine detail on paper, even down to the tiny screws holding it together. I could see the beauty and mystery of science, and I loved attempting to convey that to others.

Come crunch time when it came to following a career path I was torn between visual arts and science (as I was unaware that science visualisation was a real thing). Eventually, I decided that science was a more viable and rewarding option and that I would much rather be a part of new scientific discoveries as the tech-age forged ahead. I managed to do well in my final high school years and landed a place in Biomedical Science at the University of Melbourne, where I began to specialise in pharmacology and toxicology (occasionally testing firsthand the zero order kinetics of ethanol at the university bar, as any good pharmacologist should). As many others studying general science streams will attest, the options to the humble science graduate seemed both narrow and overwhelming at the same time — you either delved into the broad and mysterious world of science research, changed to medicine or another health profession, or alternatively uprooted and moved fields completely. Luckily, a charming and enthusiastic lecturer was somehow willing to take me up on my request to complete an Honours, and subsequently a PhD, project in his laboratory. For this, I am truly grateful to have had the chance to get my hands dirty and experience the rollercoaster ride that is science research, where often you want to just flip the desk and walk away yet somehow persevere, lured by the potential of a ‘Eureka!’ moment, which incidentally are few and far between.

As I slogged through late nights and weekends in the lab, somehow avoiding pipette-induced RSI, my passion for visual arts was taking a breather. It was only as I came to generate the figures for my thesis that it stirred from its drowsy, neglected slumber. I found myself spending way too long constructing images that tried to explain the complexities of my research as, let’s be honest, Macrophages Derived from Embryonic Stem Cells as Gene Delivery Vehicles in Experimental Lung Injury is not the easiest thing to convey using words alone. But I got a buzz from it. Satisfaction for me came as others, some with little science knowledge, viewed these images and instantly understood quite complex concepts. Even more rewarding was that it made the science somehow seem tangible, given that the molecular mechanisms that underpinned much of the work was and remains essentially invisible. And finally, eye candy. I just couldn’t get enough eye candy.

So, I felt that I had perhaps finally found my niche, one that had been seemingly elusive up until that point. One major problem, however, confronted me — how on Earth was I going to make science visualisation a viable career? For one, I had no formal tertiary visual arts training. I could tinker in Photoshop but that wasn’t going to give me the advantage I needed to make my mark. At about the same time I discovered 3D biomedical modelling and animation, inspired largely by the work of Drew Berry, and was instantly hooked. Drew is a pioneer in biomolecular animation and has won countless awards including (if you don’t mind) an Emmy and a BAFTA for his ground-breaking portrayal of DNA replication. He’s also made a music video for Björk. Not too many scientists could list those achievements on their CV. As it turned out, Drew worked at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, a stone’s throw from where I was based at the University. I was fortunate enough to be able to pick the brain of the best in the business and I gained invaluable advice about entering the field.

My concern was that I would be essentially starting from scratch at the age of 31, an age where many around me were settling down into comfortable marriage/mortgage/kids/divorce lifestyles. The thought of several more years of study and a hefty addition to my lingering study debt didn’t sit particularly well with me. I contacted just about every local science animator I knew of (as it turns out, there are only a handful in the entire country) to find out how they came to be where they were. It was reassuring to learn that they all began as scientists and that the majority were self-taught in the field of visualisation (no formal degrees in multimedia), so I felt there was a glimmer of hope for me yet. Learning the science, it seems, is the hardest part, and I had that covered fairly well already. Effective visualisation skills for wooing potential employers and funding bodies would simply come with practice. So I got to it.

I still loved science and wanted to remain part of the research scene, so I reduced my lab workload to spend a day or two per week learning the basics of animation from home. I subscribed to online training sites and completed a short night course in Foundations in 3D Animation at the Academy of Interactive Entertainment in Melbourne, where I was thrown in the deep end with a bunch of teenage gamers and programmers. I sure did feel a little out of my league. But as the old adage goes, you learn by doing. So I just ploughed on ahead. As part of the course, we were to generate a short animated film involving a robotic character, presumably as robots could be as simple or complex as the individual skill level allowed. As I wanted to get experience working with scientific designs and potentially make something folio-worthy, I developed a fleshy hybrid of organic and plastic components and suddenly ‘Blip’ was born. Blip is a microbot who crawls around inside the blood vessels of a human host, removing fatty plaques that have accumulated as a result of poor diet. He is also a Michael Jackson fan (well, why not?). To engage the audience, Blip had to be likeable, witty and a little clumsy. Throwing in a subtle health message was also a way to give the moon-walking microbot a broader purpose. While character development is not a major aspect of science visualisation, this type of approach could be a very useful way to communicate important educational concepts to young children, who instantly connect with these fictional figures.

At first, the technical process of animating was entirely overwhelming — I could barely move a simple cube around the screen. But as I slowly chipped away at little projects my skills started to improve. I’m still constantly struck by hurdles, but what often starts as swearing and head-scratching generally is easily resolved by a quick forum-search on the issue. There is a refreshing sense of camaraderie in the visual arts industry — people often come across similar day-to-day challenges and are willing to offer advice and share knowledge to others in the same boat. A perfect example is the online resource, an open community for life science professionals learning 3D visualisation. It provides detailed, step-by-step tutorials by industry experts for creating scientifically accurate and visually stunning animations — all for free.

Life science is, of course, inherently beautiful. The trouble is that it is typically on a scale that is impossible to observe or easily comprehend. At the molecular level, there is no visible colour as structures are generally smaller than the wavelength range of visible light. Science animators must therefore apply a healthy dose of artistic licence to generate rich and engaging media. But the applications for molecular and cellular visualisation go beyond just making science look pretty.

Accurate scientific models and animations are powerful tools in education. Complex mechanisms are much more easily understood when presented visually. The recent implementation of tablets in schools is poised to entirely transform the delivery of education, and there is enormous potential for sophisticated electronic science content to reach, educate and inspire not just the next generation of scientists, but the wider public. To strengthen this view, I recently had some email correspondence with Eric Keller, an LA-based author of several 3D software-training guides, teacher at the renowned Gnomon School of Visual Effects in Hollywood and all-round science animation guru. Eric has turned down several opportunities in the entertainment industry and dedicates his skills to science education because, in his words, “not only is it growing, it’s really, really, really important”. Eric, along with Drew and several other multimedia specialists worked on the content for the newly released digital science textbook, EO Wilson’s Life on Earth, which is currently freely available to anyone with an iPad.

While I’ve still got my training wheels securely bolted on, the tassels seem to be rustling with a light breeze of momentum and I’ve made a decent start on something that a year ago I would have thought was too difficult to achieve. In fact, my first entry into a ‘sci-vis’ challenge run by VizbiPlus (Visualising the Future of Biomedicine, an Inspiring Australia government initiative) was selected as a finalist and presented at the Vivid ‘Making Science Beautiful‘ event in Sydney in March this year. I was pretty pumped, to say the least. It’s a good start to what I hope is a long and rewarding endeavour.

Andrew Lilja studied at The University of Melbourne.

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