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How to communicate science visually

In a new book, MIT’s Felice Frankel aims to help scientists and engineers improve the way they portray their research through photos, diagrams and graphs.
Image: Felice Frankel

Sometimes color helps. Sometimes it just gets in the way.

That’s just one example of the lack of simple prescriptions for how to use visual materials to clearly communicate scientific concepts or research results. It all depends on the particulars, Felice Frankel explains patiently in seminars at MIT and in her new book, “Visual Strategies,” published this fall by Yale University Press.

For example, in one of Frankel’s most famous images — which ended up gracing the cover of the journal Science — her key decision was to add color to the water in an image originally produced in a single tone. The image illustrated a way of confining droplets of liquid so that, even when their edges were touching, there was no leakage from one to the next. The colorless version showed the droplets, but didn’t communicate the essence of what was going on: the total absence of seepage between them.

So Frankel — now a research scientist at MIT’s Center for Materials Science and Engineering — had the idea of adding dye to the droplets. The result was a striking image in which adjacent droplets showed up in dramatically contrasting colors. Rather than just explaining in a caption that the droplets remained isolated, this approach actually demonstrated this fact in a way that could be grasped instantly, even at a glance.

But color isn’t always the answer, Frankel notes — and in fact, many times colors are overused, or used badly. Another before-and-after example in “Visual Strategies” shows a case where researchers had initially used colors in a scanning tunneling microscope image of iron atoms on a copper surface. In that case, she points out, the colors were actually a distraction from some of the most important features in the image: A ring of atoms that served to “corral” electrons, whose density distribution appeared as standing waves, showed up well. But the colors the researchers applied tended to obscure the waves themselves. In that image, Frankel found, the most significant information in the image was much more obvious when the color was removed altogether.

“Images are becoming what our society is about,” Frankel says, citing the ubiquity of electronic devices with ever-better displays. So it’s becoming more important than ever to get the images right — and that requires understanding, thought and planning.

Frankel first began working with MIT scientists in 1994, helping improve the clarity and content of the photos they submitted with journal papers. Her work helped to garner those scientists a slew of cover photos in influential journals such as Science, Nature and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and ultimately led to her first book about the visual communication of science, “Envisioning Science” (MIT Press, 2002).

About 10 years ago, Frankel also pioneered an educational project called “Picturing to Learn.” The idea was to get students to make drawings representing their understanding of basic concepts from their classes. The exercise helps students clarify their understanding while giving teachers a clear sense of student misconceptions — and of exactly which concepts require further explanation.

Donald Sadoway, the John F. Elliott Professor of Materials Chemistry at MIT, piloted the program in an introductory chemistry class a few years ago. He said the misconceptions revealed by some of the drawings helped him to revise the way he taught the class.

After stints at Harvard University and Duke University, Frankel returned last spring to MIT, where she has conducted workshops aimed at helping researchers frame the key concepts of their work. At a workshop earlier this month, more than 100 participants heard a one-hour lecture, and then broke up into teams for exercises designed to get their creative juices flowing — and to help sort out visually useful information from visual clutter.

For that exercise, Frankel presented each team with the same set of data, and asked each to come up with a way of representing that data visually. The resulting depictions were shown to the whole group, spurring discussion and analysis of what worked well and what was less successful at communicating the data’s meaning.

Some suggestions for improving the clarity of visual depictions, as described in her new book (co-authored by Angela DePace), are as simple as rethinking how images are arranged on a page. For example, one set of before-and-after comparisons features a graph showing the spectral emissions of nanocrystals of different sizes, and a photo showing those different nanocrystals in vials, each glowing in a different color. Frankel suggested pairing the two images, aligning each colored vial with the corresponding line on the graph, and showing those lines in the same colors, emphasizing the connection. The resulting image is not only visually striking, but also helps to make the information clearer.

Cornelia Dean, a science writer for The New York Times, wrote in a recent profile about Frankel that “she helps researchers use cameras, microscopes and other tools to display the beauty of science. With her help, scientists have turned dull images of things like yeast in a dish or the surface of a CD into photographs so striking that they appear often on covers of scientific journals and magazines.”

Harvard University chemist George Whitesides, a longtime collaborator of Frankel’s who has co-authored two books with her, was quoted in Dean’s article as saying, “She has transformed the visual face of science.”

Frankel says it’s essential that scientists not only pay close attention to the communication of their ideas through still images, but also think about how animated or interactive graphics could help to convey key concepts: Those modes are becoming increasingly available in online and tablet-oriented research journals.

Such dynamic imaging, she says, is “opening up another door” that can help to convey meaning in ever more engaging ways — if it’s used thoughtfully. “There are more tools to create visual material,” she says. “It’s not just a flatland anymore.”

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