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Scientist uses 3-D animation to study cells, viruses

By Ed Yeates  |  Posted Mar 1st, 2013 @ 10:18pm


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SALT LAKE CITY — Inside University of Utah labs, researchers are trying to understand the intricate molecular mechanics of the AIDS virus - the intertwined chemistry it uses to enter and exit the human cell.

While scientists continue refining basic cellular theories that later may help others develop drugs to interrupt the virus' pathway, they're about to enter a new world of visualizing exactly what their experiments reveal.

"We're getting to the point where we have so much data and we can combine all this data to make really compelling animation that really tells more of the story of a person's hypothesis," said Janet Iwasa, an academic animator.


We're getting to the point where we have so much data and we can combine all this data to make really compelling animation that really tells more of the story of a person's hypothesis.

–Janet Iwasa


Iwasa is a cell biologist turned animator. Initially from Harvard, she now comes to the University of Utah to work with four different labs as one of only a handful of academic animators in the country.

In the out-of sight molecular world, an era of animation gives researchers a whole new perspective of what they already know or believe is happening.

"How this molecule works in a cell - what it interacts with - does it interact with another protein, another molecule - where does it move in the cell - what do they do together," Iwasa said.

The animation recreates how all these interactions interplay with each other.

Iwasa even went to Pixar studios to learn from the pros. Though her arena is academics, not entertainment - detail, storyboarding, and the art of animation itself is very much a part of her new field.

The animation is collaborative because, after all, she's illustrating what a researcher is thinking.


Even just giving them the model so they can play around with it, rotate it, and look at it again. This sometimes is enough for people to start thinking about new ways of asking questions.

–Janet Iwasa


"I think the longer part of the process is actually trying to pull that out of their heads and doing this initial kind of storyboarding, and going back and forth, and trying to figure out how this animation should look," Iwasa said.

The dynamic 3-D visualizations can condense a ton of experimental data into a single short movie. Color is challenging because the molecular world is under the wavelength of light where this is no color. Color schemes are thus chosen to illustrate clarity or to categorize a group of viruses.

"Some animators choose color based on healthy or sick," Iwasa said. "A healthy cell will look pink and kind of nice while the sick cell will look green and sickly. Again it's a visualization to communicate without using words."

More and more researchers are recognizing animation's growing sophistication and how it serves a vital role in illustrating what they're trying to say.

"Even just giving them the model so they can play around with it, rotate it, and look at it again," Iwasa said. "This sometimes is enough for people to start thinking about new ways of asking questions."

And not just researchers challenging each other, but students fascinated with what they see, asking questions as well.

Iwasa believes animation has the potential to change the way all of us, scientists and non-scientists alike, think about biology.

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