i imagine

Visualizing Tiny Worlds

Janet Iwasa hadn’t taken an art class since she was in middle school. But while she was a cell biology doctoral student at UCSF, she signed up for a course on creating animations for films and video games. It wasn’t a desire to make the latest Hollywood blockbuster that drove her—she had a different goal in mind. “While we were learning the basics of animation by working with household items, I’d try to apply the same concepts to my work as a scientist,” she says.

Iwasa is a molecular biologist, and much of what she and her colleagues study is smaller than a wavelength of light. Traditionally, scientists visualize the inner workings of cells with circles, squares, and stick figure-like drawings. “And that’s what ends up in major scientific journals,” she notes. “But so much nuance and understanding is lost in the rudimentary artwork.” Iwasa set out to learn how to pair her scientific knowledge with animation techniques so she can help researchers better understand and explain their work.

She received a National Science Foundation fellowship to learn how to use the same software that’s been used for Ice Age, Monsters, Inc., and other award-winning films and video games. She now has her own lab at the U where she works with graduate and postdoctoral fellows to create intricate demonstrations of molecular events, like how the capsid of HIV enters the nucleus of a cell, what the life cycle of SARS-CoV-2 looks like, and details of CRISPR gene editing; a still image from that animation is pictured at top. “There aren’t many people who do what I do, and it’s been hard trying to create a new field,” Iwasa says. “But the U has been so supportive. The culture of collaboration here is unique.”

HIV Life Cycle

SARS-CoV-2 Life Cycle



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  1. This was truly incredible! Adds a totally new level of understanding to cell biology. It’s mind-boggling to see the coordination of all these molecular machines!

    I am really happy I found this. Thanks for your work.

  2. I didn’t understand how the frameshift site worked. The visualization was very helpful.

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