Skip to content

Scientific Illustrations Part II: Molecular Graphics and Animation

Posted in: Writing, Publishing and Presenting
Scientific Illustrations Part II: Molecular Graphics and Animation

How do you explain to your friends and family what you have you’ve been working on all this time? Conveying the true wonder and intricacy of your work to the layperson can be tricky. They won’t be familiar with the lingo, and they might not immediately know how to interpret scientific graphs and figures. You might either reply with a one-line explanation that leaves both of you unsatisfied, or a long-winded one in the middle of which your friend wanders off. Many researchers are guilty of the latter!

In Part I of our series on scientific illustrations, we showed you how you can get started on drawing metabolic pathways and cartoons. This time, we’ll talk about another way to communicate science: using molecular graphics and animation. For instance, this award-winning animation shows the inner life of the cell, from microtubules to cell signaling:

Don’t worry, you don’t have to make cinema-ready movies like these! Just a little knowledge of the tools of visual representation—Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, Autodesk Maya and Cinema 4D—can go a long way in spicing up the presentation of your work. They will provide a welcome creative outlet and help you to communicate your hypotheses and results.

Why Learn Molecular Graphics and Animation?

“[Molecular] animations have made it easier to talk concretely about our ideas, both within the lab and with others in the field” Samara Rick-Peterson, Harvard Medical School1

Whatever your time commitment and inclination, effort spent on learning molecular graphics and animation can go a long way.

  1. Better communication among research groups. Your collaborations with other research groups can excel with the help of tools just a little more advanced than Photoshop! Using simple animations and models to communicate gives your ideas more clarity. This will help others to understand the full scope of your work. Even something as simple as a sketch illustrating a key structure or component can light up your presentations.
  2. Public outreach and instruction. Truly beautiful and accurate animated representations of your work may be daunting to make when starting out. However, the need for scientific outreach in today’s sociopolitical climate is so great that every little bit counts. Increasingly, funds are being allocated to labs and scientists who can show their work to the public and generate popular interest. Designing animation and graphics for your lab website is a good way to gain public interest and goodwill towards your lab. If you’re an advanced animator or designer, opportunities abound — you may end up providing biological background videos for a music app by Björk, or putting up scientifically accurate exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art. The only limit is your imagination!
  3. Hypothesis generation and testing. Researchers use mock-ups and 3D models of their work to better understand what the integrated data looks like. Seeing how molecules fit together can help gain insight into their function, like when exploring the shape of proteins docking to 3D whole-cell models. In many cases, creating an approximate simulation of the process under study leads to more questions. Creating an animation often leads researchers to rethink hypotheses which, once visualized, clearly don’t work in practice. “My animations always include a number of ideas, some of which may be backed by a great deal of experimental data, and some that are more conjecture,” says University of Utah researcher Janet Iwasa, Ph.D2. Similarly, your graphics and animations may function as useful idea-generating tools at critical points in your research career.
  4. A career in biomedical illustration and visualization. If you want to dive into molecular graphics and animation even further, why not go for a Masters in Biomedical Illustration? Numerous universities across North America and Europe offer courses in Scientific Communication that include animation and illustration modules. Dedicated programs in biological visualization are also springing up in response to increased response from trained professionals in industry, academia and government. Working in this field gives you the opportunity to collaborate with researchers to bring their work to life for a variety of audiences. Trained medical illustrators are also sought after in the legal system, to show reconstructed evidence in courtrooms, and to instruct students and medical doctors.

Getting Started

Excited about the prospect of using molecular graphics and animation in your work? You’re not alone! There is an abundance of free resources out there for the intrepid scientist looking to craft molecules and cells onscreen. Some of the most useful include:

  1. Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator tutorials. The ultimate weapon for beginners, Adobe Photoshop is easy to use and powerful enough for basic photo editing and cut-and-paste operations. Illustrator is the way to go if you want to create vector graphics from scratch. Start with the absolute basics here, then work your way up to the big leagues with this. Though most tutorials won’t explicitly teach you to draw biological graphics, you can learn the tools here and then apply them to your own work.
  2. Maya tutorials. Autodesk Maya remains the industry standard for animation and 3D modeling, so you should get the core basics down pat. Create your first project with a tutorial like this one, and then build up your skills gradually with these. The goal is not to become the best animator around, but to get to a point where you feel comfortable in the Maya environment and can plan and execute your own projects with ease.
  3. Biological modeling and animation tutorials. The part we’ve all been waiting for! The two best resources for building your specific skills are Molecular Movies and this YouTube series by Biocinematics. To import your PDB (program database) files into Maya and get a whole lot of other presets, you can download the Molecular Maya (mMaya) plugin here. For further career advice and more helpful links, check out this editorial by Dr Janet Iwasa, a pioneer in the field.

I hope we’ve convinced you to start getting creative, let us know how you get on in the comments!

Scientific Illustrations Series:

Scientific Illustrations Part I: Schematics and Cartoons

Scientific Illustrations Part II: Molecular Graphics and Animations


  1. Lok, C. (2011). Biomedical illustration: From monsters to molecules. Nature, 477(7364), 359-361.
  2. Owens-Liston, P. (2013). Can scientific animations lead to new discoveries? Janet Iwasa, Ph.D., says next-generation visualization speeds research. Algorithms for Innovation.
Share this to your network:

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll To Top