Sciencemotionology: Would you tell us about your scientific background? When did your interest for scientific illustration begin?
Idoya: I studied biology in Spain and I did my PhD on Genetics in Leukemia. I came to Belgium to do a postdoc. I was always interested in good scientific illustrations and diagrams. However, each time I looked on Google for images to use in my presentations and show what I was working with, I felt frustrated. I realized that there were not that many nice images available. During my post-doc period I met Luk who was then learning and practicing with Blender, a software to make 3D illustrations and animations. We both talked a lot about the need for scientist to have visually nicer images, or have the processes to make them.
Luk: I am trained as a molecular biologist for my PhD. When I met Idoya we were both doing postdocs in the same lab. At that time I was already busy for several years with illustrations. One of my interests from very early on was illustration, especially computer generated images (CGI). So, I started learning it on my own, via Blender, which is the open source 3D modelling package that is freely available. Applying the things that I had learnt in Blender in science, led to making scientific figures. That is something I am passionate about, especially the 3D modelling, so I tried to combine these two.
Sciencemotionology: How did somersault 18:24 start, and when?
Luk: When we met in the lab, I had already some experience with scientific illustration. I found it very interesting and I had many ideas about it. We talked and one thing led to another, and that is how everything started. This was in 2009. We did not call the project "somersault" right away. Yet we had the idea of starting something new, something original.
Idoya: I remember that I was working on a project for a pharmaceutical company, and Luk prepared a Blender template file for me. I could then easily, just by connecting the right nodes, have different variations of a cell image. I used this afterwards in my presentations and reports. As these were simple things that could be applied in our daily jobs, our colleagues started to notice it and to like it.
Sciencemotionology: Where does the name somersault 18:24 come from?
Idoya: The original name was Cantaloop. At the time, we were playing around with this idea [of an illustration service for scientists] around with two other people, but they didn't want to take it so far as we did. When we decided to move our idea forward, we took the name somersault - it’s the name of a song from a group from Denmark called I got you on tape. It’s a song that we both like a lot. Initially, it was going to be called somersault studio. But there was already someone else who had taken that name, doing illustrations for children. So we took the “studio” out and added our birthdays 18 and 24.
Sciencemotionology: What is your vision for somersault 18:24?
Luk: I’m happy that you raised that question because we do have a clear vision. We want to disrupt, or revolutionize, how scientists communicate visually about their work. First of all, we provide them with tools, like these databanks of illustrations that you can find on our website. We started teaching courses at Belgian universities. We teach about publishing in scientific journals, about how to prepare figures, how to stand out of the crowd, what they can do as scientists! About the opportunity that they have to make their figures speak. We also extended it to Holland, and hopefully, in the future, more European universities will become interested. That is the part of the grand vision of somersault 18:24 - we want to make a difference! Because every scientist should realize how important it is to communicate well about their work.
Sciencemotionology: Which do you think are the biggest challenges in scientific illustration?
Idoya: The most difficult part is that, when we meet with scientists, they don’t think it’s necessary to spend extra time in trying to communicate their research in a compelling visual manner, after spending most of their time on the research itself. So one of the challenges is to make them understand how important this part is and to teach them how to do it. They need to spread their results, to show the rest of the world what they have doing in the last years and that other people can understand what the research is about. It is very important that their message gets across as other people can learn from it and build other scientific hypothesis.
Luk: I think the big challenge here is to make scientists aware of this necessity [communicating well their results] and the next step is to make it accessible. They need to be aware of this and to be able to deal with it themselves. Otherwise, they can reach out to our services. Sometimes, they are aware of it but they don’t always know how to deal with it by themselves.
Sciencemotionology: Why don’t we see more researchers using modern graphic tools to communicate their findings?
Luk: I think most people use what they know - especially PowerPoint. Because scientists have this culture of starting to use this presentation software to present their work from very early on. Then, they discover it also has some graphical capabilities and, all of a sudden, PowerPoint becomes their “graphics tool”. Nowadays, we see some people moving towards Photoshop, Illustrator, or Gimp and Inkscape as free alternatives. But it’s still not a common practice. And that is something we also help with, because one of the biggest problems is the steep learning curve. This software is not so easy to learn and researchers have other priorities. But they have to first realize about how important this is, to prioritize it and get into a different mind-set. This is something that is shifting. We feel that some universities stimulate this change very much; others do not. It’s also something that changes from department to department; from lab to lab, and even from person to person.
Sciencemotionology: What is your perception on the evolution of scientific illustration and where do you think it will be in 2020?
Luk: In the beginning, we had atomic drawings (molecular graphics). I think those were the first illustrations ever made. Now it’s more common, people can do it because we are introducing these tools. However, you still have to have the knowledge - so that is the bottleneck. But, illustration serves a lot of purposes, especially in education, in order to get young people interested about science. I’m not sure where we are all going next. One thing, perhaps, is what Labster is doing - virtual reality labs. They use scientific visualization to put someone “working in a lab” without actually working in the lab. This is already happening! Another thing we will be able to do, through virtual reality, or augmented reality is “walking inside” a cell and exploring, with the new tools that are being developed. This could lead to new discoveries. However, we are at the infancy of all these things. Another technology that is interesting - and we are already doing this at this moment - is 3D printing. I think it has its time and place in science as well, because things that are so small that we cannot really see or appreciate them. If it can be printed out, it can be better understood.
Idoya: And for educational needs in schools, it’s not the same to tell a child about a cell, what is inside the cell... If you can show a 3D printed model of an organelle… I think if you can see things closer, if you can “touch” them, more senses are involved in the process and you will remember more and longer.
Sciencemotionology: Who are your references in scientific illustration? How do they influence your work?
Luk: There are several people we like a lot in the world of illustration. For example, Brian Christie does some excellent work. He does more than scientific illustration and I think that is what attracts me, because he adds a lot of design in his work. I’m very much inspired by design - graphic, product, industrial, architectural… Those are areas that interest me a lot. The main field that interests me is Minimalism. I try to bring that also to scientific illustration. And then there is Anatomy Blue, who do nice clean imagery. I try not to look at too many things for inspiration. When I do look at the work of others, I don’t try to copy. Those are certainly an inspiration for my own work, but there are others…
Idoya: Recently we started working with Diogo Guerra and we are really impressed with his illustrations - he is really good. We are very lucky because we can collaborate with him, he is also very inspiring. And we also collaborate with a medical illustrator from Italy - Sandro Fedini. He is also an amazing illustrator. He does a different analysis, more on anatomical themes and he is very talented also.
Sciencemotionology: Do you think there is space for creativity in scientific illustration?
Luk: Absolutely! It depends on the subject of course. If you want to convey certain specific information, you may not have a lot of room to be creative. On the other hand, when you have the option to do a cover design, or something else of that nature, you can be very creative. Also because we have to work in very strict boundaries - you have to be creative somehow to do that. You can be creative in many aspects as, for example, the most obvious creative feature for me is colour. At the subcellular level, there are no colour conventions. The organelles do not catch any light, so you can be very creative with colour. There are structures to work with, so you can give textures, you can give a certain feel, or light, or some transparency. This makes an image very creative but also captures people’s attention. That makes things stand out.
Idoya: Everything that we cannot see is open to the interpretation of the artist, to make more it attractive. We usually see cells with a couple of features inside, but actually, cells are packed with proteins and everything is really dense, but we never see this in visualization. It should be chaotic, things moving, compact… so what we see is the interpretation of the artist.
Luk: So, if we want it to be correct - like the work of Drew Berry, as correct as it can be - the limitations to creativity are considerable, but you can work with colour, texture, with lining - you can still do things creatively, produce them… it’s not only the data that counts. In other fields, like cover design, we can be much more creative, there is much more freedom. There are different levels of creativity in scientific visualization.
Idoya: These are the pieces of work that we most enjoy, where we can have more freedom. We obviously like all the work, but these are the ones where you have the freedom - these are the ones we like most.
Luk: We like to work on the concept. We get the data to work on, this and this and this - that’s the story, and then we can work it out as we want. That moment, the artist speaks.
Sciencemotionology: Do you have a favorite work you did and why is it so important for you?
Luk: One that we like especially is the one that we recently did for Nature Materials cover, which illustrates a little bit of the creativity that we put into it. Another one we did a few years ago for the cover of Nature Communications, which is also a very conceptual cover.
Idoya: Last year we made a poster wall for the institute where we were working. They wanted to have a huge poster - 3 or 4 metres high, to show the different departments there are. It is now on the wall of the institute.
Sciencemotionology: Could you disclose something of your current projects?
Luk: We are creating a game - it’s called Pathogenesis, it’s being done with two great people from the USA who reached out to us for the artwork. They are very good in game design. It’s their second game now - Pathogenesis, and the idea is that you take the role of a pathogen trying to invade the human body. That’s your mission in the game. We are doing the artwork for the game; it’s a deck-building game and we are now more than half-way finished. The release will be around this summer.
Another thing that we are working on is on providing tools for scientists - we are creating a platform where we are bringing together the scientists and the illustrators. The platform will collect jobs for scientists, things that they can make - this is ideal for beginning artists who want to test their work, or work on jobs to earn a little pocket money. We are trying to provide tools for people with graphic skills and scientific knowledge to apply those to real projects. We are trying to release that in the second quarter of this year. We are working on other major projects, besides these services….
Sciencemotionology: Science-based jewellery. How is that going?
Idoya: It’s going really well. It all started with some 3D models of cells like the neuron and viruses, that we had built on Blender and then decided to 3D print them. People actually liked them a lot. People like them as gifts, or to wear themselves. If you are a scientist and you want to show to the rest of the world that you love science, that you are passionate about what you are doing, that is fine.
Luk: It’s about spreading the love of science. That doesn’t always happen in schools or research institutes. It happens often outside these environments and this is one of the ways it could happen, if you are a scientist. You can show it to your friends, it can get a conversation started, and it spreads awareness about science too.
Somersault 18:24 is an original project, run by Idoya Lahortiga and Luk Cox, both PhD graduates in Biomedical Sciences, who want to help research scientists, journals and pharma companies to communicate better through visuals.
Luk and Idoya are passionate about their work in combining art, science and educational principles. They develop scientific images, illustrations and animations using computer graphics, photography and 3D modelling techniques.