A biologist-turned-animator offers new insight
Rick Guasco

Janet Iwasa, PhD, is a cellular biologist who has become a computer animator. She believes animation can not only help people visualize how HIV works, but allow researchers to try out their theories and come up with new ideas about how to treat the virus.

“Animations aren’t just useful for communicating an idea, they’re also really useful for exploring a hypothesis,” said Iwasa in her March 2014 presentation at a TED Talk lecture series. “Biologists, for the most part, are still using paper and pencil to visualize the processes they study.”

Iwasa attended the University of California-San Francisco, where her mentor encouraged her to pursue her interest in animation. She created videos on the chemical origins of life for her postdoctoral work at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Museum of Science in Boston.

While she’s passionate about how animation can change our understanding, Iwasa is especially focused on the fight against HIV. She recently took a moment from a trip to Toronto to discuss her work.

Janet Iwasa at her March 2014 Ted Talk presentation.

RICK GUASCO: You’re a cellular biologist; how did you get into animation?

JANET IWASA: I was trained as a cell biologist, and got into animation during graduate school. I was studying the process by which cells (such as some immune cells) can move, and was interested in trying to create visualizations of what we thought was happening on a molecular scale. These are events that are too small to be seen even using the best light microscopes, so we can’t directly see what’s happening. But from different sources of data, we know quite a bit about what they might look like. These molecular processes are dynamic and three-dimensional, so I decided to learn 3D animation so that I could learn to create these visualizations. The software I use is from the entertainment industry; it’s the same software used in making animated movies and Hollywood-style visual effects.

Although my path has diverged a bit from the typical research scientist, I still consider myself to be a biologist first, with a very deep interest in scientific communication, education, and visualization.

Is HIV your main area of scientific interest? What made you focus on HIV?

I currently spend about half of my time working on visualizations with HIV researchers. One of the reasons I focused on this topic was that I felt that there is decades of research about how HIV works, but much of it would be difficult for non-scientists to understand. From these studies, however, we know in great detail how HIV is able to infect our bodies at a molecular scale. Using animation, I hope to make this body of research more accessible to the general public. I want people to see how the virus works, and how drugs are able to stop the virus at various stages of its life cycle. And I hope that these 3D animations will give researchers a better visual model of the virus to help push their research forward.

What advances have come about that have allowed you to create what one NIH blog called ‘unprecedented views of HIV’?

Through decades of research, structural biologists have figured out the three-dimensional shapes of nearly all of the viral proteins, as well as many of the proteins in our cells that interact with HIV. Through biochemical and cell biological studies, we’re gaining an increasingly clear picture of how the virus enters cells and co-opts the cellular machinery while evading detection by the immune system. I take this data and work with researchers to create a movie that depicts what they think is happening inside of cells. One of the things that makes it ‘unprecedented’ is that I’m creating animations of events that are too small to be seen by the naked eye. The animation is really a hypothesis—a video of what researchers think the virus is doing, based upon multiple sources of experimental evidence.

What goes into creating your animations?

The animations are created in close collaboration with HIV researchers, and are a direct reflection of their ideas. The length of time for different segments varies quite a bit, but generally, it can take weeks to months to finish even a short segment. A lot of this time is spent building a model, sharing it with the research collaborators, discussing it, and making changes to better reflect their ideas and experimental results. The Science of HIV project is funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Your animations are cutting edge biology, but the narration is so conversational. Who are your videos for?

ScienceofHIV.org is targeted at the public. One of the things that I think that animations are great at is being able to convey ideas without getting bogged down in jargon and terminology. This is especially important when trying to communicate molecular-level biology, which can be really intimidating to most people.

The process of creating an animation can help researchers, too. Most molecular biologists, including HIV researchers, are trying to understand processes that involve numerous molecules moving over time and space, but lack the ability to visualize these processes. Animation software allows us to do that, and that can help researchers wrap their heads around problems, and give them ideas of where to go next.