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These 3D animations could help you finally understand molecular science

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    And now to another in our Brief But Spectacular series.

    Tonight, we hear from Janet Iwasa, an assistant professor of biochemistry at the University of Utah, who is trying to increase the public's understanding of science at a molecular level using computer animation.

    JANET IWASA, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry, University of Utah: I was in a lab that studied the actin cytoskeleton.

    So, this is looking at the way cells crawl. And we were right next door to a lab that studied how proteins move along microtubules, so this is considered kind of the highway of the cell.

    I never really got it, until I saw this 3-D animation that showed all of that detail. And so it made me think, why aren't we all doing this? We should all be animating the things that we study.

    The traditional way for a scientist to visualize their hypothesis is using something called a model figure. And it's kind of like a stick drawing representation of cells and molecules where you have one protein that's a circle and then another protein that's a square, and then you draw an arrow to show these things come together.

    Animation can take a lot of that information and really convey it in a way that's more dynamic and true to what we actually understand.

    I had this incredible postdoctoral fellowship from the National Science Foundation. I basically said, I need to learn animation to do this. And so I wrote into the grant that I needed to go to Hollywood and learn the best animation software I could learn.

    The things that a lot of cell biologists and molecular biologists study are basically smaller than the wavelength of light. The animation is a way to tell that story.

    I think the kind of the depth of our understanding of HIV and how HIV works hasn't been communicated, partially because it's really hard to tell those kinds of stories.

    We have a vast amount of information about how HIV works. Almost every single part of the HIV life cycle has been very clearly defined, but I think the problem is, all of this information is locked away in the way that scientists normally share data, which is in publications. And the publications are hard to read, but they are also generally not that accessible.

    My idea is to use to use animation to basically take all of that data and to create this visual hypothesis of how we think HIV gets into cells and what it does inside cells and how it gets out. We just know so much. And I want to be able to tell that story.

    Historically, art and science were not two things that were separate. A lot of really famous scientists, people who did early microscopy were actually artists, too. They had to be able to depict the things that they saw under the microscope or through a telescope on a piece of paper to actually do that communication and to show what they were seeing.

    And we still do need to have these artistic skills and be able to convey our ideas visually in order to actually really do good science.

    My name is Janet Iwasa, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on molecular animation.