GRC Science Viz: Opening Day

I just arrived at the Science and Education Visualization Gordon Conference in Smithfield, Rhode Island.  The conference is being held this year at Bryant University, just northwest of Providence.  140 scientists, artists, researchers, museum designers, and graphic designers have gathered here for this five-day, intensive meeting.  All the sciences are represented here – biology, chemistry, physics, math, computer science, cognitive psychology, astronomy, and geology – the emphasis is on interdisciplinary connections, as applied to visualizations.

One wonderful aspect of this interdisciplinary conference is that the speakers stay for the duration – no parachuting in to give their talk and leave. With the agenda structured as it is, to allow for maximum time for discussion, there is plenty of opportunity to extend the conversation and explore the intriguing ideas presented by those speakers.  In addition to that, the program offers a visionary mini grant program (three grants of $6k each, funded by the National Science Foundation).  All attendees have the opportunity to write and submit proposals for these mini grants, which are awarded in September.  What a terrific idea to seed new ideas and foster collaboration.

I will attempt to blog the conference (posting the blogs at the conference’s conclusion), but will not be able to capture all of the speakers.

Bang Wong

The conference opened tonight with two powerful speakers.  The first, Bang Wong, Creative Director at the Broad Institute in Cambridge (MA), gave a talk entitled, Five Vignettes on Visualizng the Genome.  Bang talked about the history of scientific illustration – Leonardo DaVinci, Durer, Ernest Haekcel, and Max Brodel and their quest to sort through complex information in order to capture what was most relevant for their audience. Bang, who is trained as a medical illustrator, talked about his days at Johns Hopkins, drawing surgical procedures, and his understanding of the “surgical moment”.  Those key junctures during a surgery where the surgeon’s specific actions, in relationship to the anatomical structures, come together at a crucial intersection.

In the Broad Institute’s ground floor lobby, they have an open-to-the-public DNAtrium where they feature exhibits to explain the work going on at the Broad Institute.  One of the displays is called the Data Stream, where each letter of the DNA is tagged with a different color, to show genome sequencing in real time.  Here is a video loop, from the Data Stream, showing DNA being sequenced –  3.5 billion letters of the genome flying by you.  An intriguing aspect of this visualization is that, as the enzyme that does the sequencing “tires out”, the color of the letters fades. A subtlety like this, included in the visualization, gives the public the chance to see raw data and get a glimpse into the messiness and true nature of genomic research.  In addition to the data stream, Bang showed us photos of DNA sequencers and robotically automated microscopes that are on display in the DNAtrium, with cut-aways to reveal their working parts.  The centerpiece of the DNAtrium is the CRX – Community Research Experience –  an interactive display that shows news as a physical experience, controlled by the viewers with a remote control.

Bang went on to talk about some of the principles of good design applied to visualizations…techniques used to help visualize complex biology data (e.g. salience way to make data stand out), the ambiguity of proximal color (ala Cynthia Brewer’s color advice), and the problem of visual overload. Bang writes a monthly column for Nature Methods on the visual presentation of scientific data in which you can read more about his thinking and advice on color, graphs, encoding/decoding data, and making sense of information.

They have an artist in residence program at the Broad where artists come and work at the Broad for a period of time, interacting with the scientists and creating works of art influenced by what they learn.  Bang explained that this is a wonderful way to point up the parallels and interdependencies between art and science.  One of my favorites as a phylogenetic tree represented as a mobile – about 20 feet across – hanging in the lobby of the Broad.  A wonderful conection between seeing, thinking, and understanding.

Kurt Squire

The second speaker of the evening was Kurt Squire, from University of Wisconsin, Madison’s Wisconsin Institute for Discovery.  Squire’s research is on games and learning and he is the author of a book called Video Games and Learning.  As Squire explained, games are models that represent ideas as interactive worlds and we build more robust models of scientific ideas through cycles of trial and error – something that games are very, very good at.  Games pique our interest and they tend to the aesthetics of the experience.  The basic architecture of his group’s games builds around an authentic data set.  They put the data on a “game board” and the learners (players) act on it. Among the games they are developing….one to help scientists understand implicit bias in science, another about designing viruses, one on conservation issues, another on radiation therapy and cancer treatment, and a citizen-science game with young people helping a scientist to do research on a local lake.  There is a new game called Virulent, available on the iPad, which walks the player through what happens when a virus infects a cell.

One of their games, Anatomy Pro-Am, is now available on Facebook so that people can play with each other, online. According to Squire, the real power of something like this, is that it could break down the walls between doctors, researchers, patients, kids, and the general public.

A particularly interesting aspect of Squires’ talk is the whole area of assessment.  As Squire says, when someone plays Halo, you don’t have to give them a test after they’ve played for a week to see if they know how to play the game, if they are playing the game, they know how to do it.  He talked about character/player sheets, where players record their own performance and rate themselves on the various aspects of the games they play. Players also create tools themselves to generate data on their own performance and compare their play to others.

What a wonderful start!


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