Bonnie Scott, PhD
Bonnie Scott, PhD
Communication Designer

Career Profile

Please introduce yourself (what is your current training/educational status and/or where do you work?)

I’m a communication designer at a leading service design firm called Bridgeable in Toronto, Canada. Since 2012, I have worked with healthcare clients across North America and Europe to answer complex business, educational, and biomedical questions through the lens of user-centered design. Service design is a relatively new but exciting field that uses “design thinking” (co-creation with users, rapid prototyping, and systems thinking) to innovate and improve services from the perspectives of both the customer and service provider.

Service design and scientific visualization intersect in the healthcare sphere. I use illustration, video, and interactive approaches to help our team and others in the process of solving problems as well as to create beautiful communications that go out into the world. I received my PhD in 2010 from The University of Chicago in Cell and Molecular Biology and my Master of Science in Biomedical Communications (BMC) in 2012 from the University of Toronto.

How did you decide to get into scientific visualization?

I decided to pursue scientific visualization after sitting in academic talks throughout my graduate career and witnessing the good, the bad, and the ugly side of visual communication. There was a great need for visual tools and education created by and for the scientific community. Near the end of my PhD, I wanted to know how I could get involved, at first to create 3D molecular animations and then to design interactive games (what I call the “black box” phase because it was difficult to know how to enter the field). I was lucky enough to meet Gaël McGill and Jason Sharpe at an American Society for Cell Biology meeting in 2009 who pointed me towards the BMC program in Toronto where I could combine my passion for science and visual communication.

What do you like the most about this field?

What gets me excited is the big picture – the obvious need for good visual storytelling. This is especially true in science and medicine, where the scale and relationships of biological processes can be tricky to represent and explain. When done well, I love how scientific visualizations can break down complexity, capture our imagination, and compel us into action (I still remember when I first saw “The Inner Life of the Cell”), while using scientific data to guide the design. I also feel privileged to work with a diverse group of talented and passionate people (e.g., researchers, designers, animators, and programmers) as well as enjoy cross-pollination between fields (e.g., academic science, business, art, computer graphics, and design).

How and where did you acquire your current skill set in scientific visualization?  Was it all via a graduate or other program or are you self taught?  If so, did you use any particular online resources to help with your training?

It’s definitely been a mix of independent learning and formal training. In my grad school days, I taught myself Adobe Illustrator and attended conferences like SIGGRAPH (computer graphics) and the Gordon Research Conference on Visualization in Science and Education. This gave me enough self-awareness that when I made the decision to pursue scientific visualization, I knew I would greatly benefit from a formal medical illustration program like BMC. While completing projects in BMC, I had many opportunities to use online resources like, Greyscalegorilla, and MolecularMovies, as well as new tools like ePMV. The BMC professors were exceptional at providing mentoring, conceptual frameworks, and opportunities to build my skills. And the benefit of such a small community meant that I could reach out to great people like Graham Johnson and Gaël McGill who helped and inspired me along the way. The rest of my learning has been on the job!

Sample 1: DNAZip! is a video game about DNA replication that was designed to evaluate game-based science learning at the Ontario Science Centre in the spring of 2012.
Sample 1: DNAZip! is a video game about DNA replication that was designed to evaluate game-based science learning at the Ontario Science Centre in the spring of 2012.

What do you consider some of the biggest barriers to entering the field?  Are they technical, training, scientific, professional (availability of jobs or projects)?

The lack of clear career paths and training programs is a very real “black box” for people trying to enter the field. Compounding this, the career options for visual communicators is ambiguous and expanding as business models shift and technologies advance. Graduates of medical illustration programs often accept jobs, like myself in service design, that merge our skills with existing positions to create a hybrid role within an organization. I would be thrilled if there were more jobs specifically to pursue, for example, molecular visualization. However, we first need to create the demand. To do this, we need to improve how we market our value and ignite the desire within companies and academic institutions for visual communicators.

How do you feel your PhD training has an impact on your scientific visualization work?  What specific skills from your PhD training have empowered you in your scientific visualization work?  Do you think your PhD training has given you a unique perspective on viewing, interpreting, and creating scientific visualizations?

My PhD training gave me a very proactive approach to problem solving. The idea that I was on the verge of discovery and forging my own path encouraged me to be independent and to immerse myself in literature, design experiments, and look for connections. So, when I began my first project at Bridgeable–to help design a large-scale table-top videogame and educational animation series about schizophrenia and a drug’s MOA–my PhD training came into great use. I had to quickly understand the biological processes involved and help guide the team’s decision on visual and behavioral representation of the molecules that was both data-driven and relevant for fast game play. Here is an article about our design process: “Educational Games: Ten Design Tips for Immersive Learning Experiences”

Which practitioners (or what visualizations) have been most inspirational to you?

The first molecular animation I ever saw was “The Inner Life of the Cell” in my first-year undergraduate biology class. It completely blew my mind and made me realize there must be a group of people out there doing this really cool stuff. During my BMC years, the game “FoldIt” by Seth Cooper and others at University of Washington’s Center for Game Science in collaboration with the UW Department of Biochemistry was a source of much inspiration, as well as the molecular representations and visual educational approach of the extraordinary David Goodsell in “The Machinery of Life” and Protein Data Bank.

Which conferences would you recommend to those interested in this field and why?  What particular insights or benefits did you get out of attending this (these) conferences?

One conference that I would highly recommend is the Gordon Research Conference in Visualization in Science and Education. It’s a relatively small meeting (~100 attendees) that brings together academic experts in our field to share ideas, collaborate, and mingle. The talks expand your perspectives (e.g., Google navigation tools, use of gestures in learning, design experiments using early computer programming) and you bunk in university dorms and eat together for five days straight. So if you didn’t know your colleagues before, you do now!

If there was one resource, tool or conference that you could wish for to facilitate your work, what would it be?

A conference where people in our field could meet and discuss a plan of action for making scientific visualization a more well-known and valued profession.

What other advice would you offer those interested in either a professional or full-time academic career in scientific visualization?

Businesses (e.g., medical device companies, pharma) and universities are starting to become aware of the value of in-house visual communicators. My advice is to be open to different job opportunities and know how to communicate the value of your work.

Sample 2: Cell Machines is a 3D puzzle game I designed in 2012 for my BMC Master’s Research Project to teach university biology students about molecular representation and protein-protein interactions.
Sample 2: Cell Machines is a 3D puzzle game I designed in 2012 for my BMC Master’s Research Project to teach university biology students about molecular representation and protein-protein interactions.

Please comment briefly on the samples/links that you have submitted for this profile… why in particular are you proud of these and what do you hope viewers will notice and get from seeing them?

DNAZip! is a video game about DNA replication created by a small interdisciplinary team of scientists, artists, and computer programmers. We evaluated the game at the Ontario Science Centre in the spring of 2012. I’m particularly proud of this project because it was completely volunteer-driven and we were able to interact with real users to explore themes about how kids engage with science games and learn in public spaces.

DNAZip! Intro:

DNAZip! Gameplay:

Cell Machines is a 3D puzzle game I designed as my Masters Research Project in BMC to teach university biology students about important yet challenging principles of molecular representation and protein-protein interaction. I feel passionate about this project because I think it addresses a big unmet need in university biology education.

Cell Machines Gameplay:

Where do you think the field scientific visualization is ‘going’?  Do you perceive any trends in its evolution or are there certain directions that you would like to see implemented?

I see visual communication, especially in science, becoming more integral to how we share information in the future and critical to a business’ bottom line. As academia, business, and consumers continue to generate vast amounts of data, scientific visualization will become integral to understanding this data and deriving value from it.

And then let’s end with a simple question… What is your ‘10 year plan’ in terms of what you hope to accomplish in scientific visualization?

My long-term plan is to use my expanding toolkit of skills (like “design thinking”) to help create memorable experiences that teach, inspire, and generate new ideas about science and medicine. I’m truly passionate about cell and molecular biology and the use of interactive technologies in learning. In the years ahead, I hope to continue being involved in these two fields, ideally to make and evaluate interactive experiences about science as teaching tools.

Bonnie’s SciVis Video Tutorials:

Bridgeable’s Designership Video on Co-Creation:

My personal portfolio site will back up soon! (