Stuart Jantzen, MScBMC, Freelancer
Stuart Jantzen, MScBMC

Career Profile

Please introduce yourself (what is your current training/educational status and/or where do you work?) and share with us how you decided to get into scientific visualization.

I am a science animator and educator, currently creating educational biology videos on YouTube ( I also do freelance animation/illustration, but I’m hoping eventually the YouTube work can become a sustainable revenue stream. I have a Master’s in Biomedical Communication from the University of Toronto and a BSc in Molecular Biology. It was while working in bioinformatics, after my undergraduate degree, that I discovered a path to pursue my passions for teaching, molecular biology, and animation.

What do you like the most about this field?

It’s a richly creative field. Storytelling is a big part of it. And I love the process of solving creative problems, whether that’s how to tell a story, how to visualize a complex concept, how to generate an effect, how to arrange the pieces of an image or shot. It can also be immensely frustrating, but finding a solution (and there’s always a solution) is deeply satisfying.

How and where did you acquire your current skillset 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?

The core of my training was through the Master of Science in Biomedical Communciations (MScBMC) program at the University of Toronto. Prior to that I dabbled in 3D animation and tried to figure out how to teach myself about science visualization before I realized this was a real field with real programs to train you. That being said, the majority of my skillset has come by doing. In other words, every project (client, academic, or personal) is an immense learning experience.

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

It’s intimidating. The software is complex, the science is vast and deep, and the artistic ability of many prominent figures in the field is breath-taking. And unlike some professions which may appear deceptively easy, I personally don’t think science animation looks accessible from the outside. At least that’s how I felt when I was introduced to it; it seemed unfathomably difficult. Fortunately the field is also characterized by incredibly generous individuals willing to mentor, support, and assist.

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

Like many others, I find David Goodsell to be an endless inspiration. He brings a clarity and simplicity to subjects of incredible complexity that is both paradoxical and beautiful. Visual complexity isn’t always at odds with clear communication. Drew Berry also continues to inspire in me awe, wonder, and curiosity about the molecular realm. The worlds he creates are vibrant and dynamic and fascinating.

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?

The annual AMI (Association of Medical Illustrators) conference is a great meeting place for people who care about visual communication of scientific and medical information. It’s a wonderful blend of artistry, technology, and biomedical communication. Attending VizBi gave me a deeper appreciation for the breadth and depth of the challenges of visualizing biological data. There are so many kinds of biological data and fortunately also many different possibilities for presenting it visually.

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

I wish molecular dynamics data and tools were more available and accessible. The Protein Data Bank and various import tools have made it very easy to use structural data in 3D animations. However that’s less true with motion data and it would be lovely to have a vast library of molecular data simulations at one’s fingertips.

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

This is as much directed at myself as anyone, and I’m stealing the words from Pixar: “Story is King”. I often hear people talk about science visualization/medical illustration as the intersection of science and art. Science is the content and art is the medium, but the point of it all is to communicate information: to educate, inspire, and enlighten. No matter how beautiful, technically sophisticated, or scientifically accurate a piece is, if the core ideas are lost on the intended audience, it isn’t really doing its job. In other words, put heavy emphasis on the storytelling and visual communication design.

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?

The first sample shows stills from an animation called “Are you REALLY a Carbon Based Life Form?”. It takes a hopefully catchy question (what does it mean to be carbon-based?) and introduces many of the fundamental ideas in molecular biology. What are atoms, elements, and molecules? Which elements are we made of, and what is carbon’s role in all of it? Based on the comments I’ve received, it seems to do a good job of encapsulating a significant amount of foundational information inside an engaging narrative.

The second sample shows stills from an animation that showcases recent nanotechnology research while explaining some of the history and research process itself. I think this video provides insight into how research develops over time and why “practical usefulness” might not be the best metric for how important any given research is.

Where do you think the field of 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 think it’s getting more democratized, with more software and resources available (often for free) for people starting out. On the flip side, I also think there’s growing pressure for higher quality visualization as more data and tools are available. Biological information keeps rapidly expanding as do technological capabilities. These are exciting times!

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?

I plan to continue to build my Biocinematics YouTube channel, reaching as many people as I can, in order to help develop science literacy, correct misconceptions, and inspire students. In the process, I expect to learn a lot about biology and try to do some wizardy things with 3D animation software. If I somehow manage to pay the bills with this, I’ll call the decade a success.