Career QnA

Read about the career choices our mentors have made to become established biotech professionals. Each month, a new mentor will share their career journeys and advice for those wishing to follow in their footsteps.

Dr. Janet Iwasa

Ashraf Amlani - Saturday, April 30, 2011

Dr. Janet Iwasa is currently a lecturer in molecular visualization at Harvard Medical School, where she collaborates with faculty in the Department of Cell Biology to create biological visualizations for research and education. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, San Francisco working on actin cytoskeleton dynamics with Dyche Mullins. Janet was awarded a NSF Discovery Corps fellowship which allowed her to pursue scientific animation as a post-doctoral fellow and to attend the Gnomon School for Visual Effects in Hollywood, California. From 2006-2008, she worked with Jack Szostak at Massachusetts General Hospital/ Harvard and the Museum of Scoence in Boston to create a multimedia exhibit on the origins of life. To animate molecules, Janet works with the same types of software used in Hollywood to make movies like Toy Story. Some of her recent animation projects can be viewed here

SBN: What inspired you to create molecular animations/visualization?

JanetJI: While I was in graduate school, I saw a couple of molecular animations that I felt were very powerful communication tools. I was studying the actin cytoskeleton in motile cells, a complex and dynamic system that I thought would be great to animate. So, I enrolled in an animation course and started to create animations of some of the research interests in my lab.

SBN: When you decided to start creating molecular animations as a career did you have the skills required to create such art? What steps did you take to build this skill set?

JI: I never took an art courses while I was in college or graduate school, but I’ve always been interested in drawing and playing with programs like Adobe Illustrator. My main goal when I work on an animation is to create a visualization that I think accurately and clearly portrays a molecular event.

SBN: What training did you receive in addition to your PhD in order to be able to create these illustrations?

I took a couple courses in animation. In graduate school, I took a course on animation at San Francisco State University. This was a semester long undergraduate course that I was able to take for free through an exchange program at UCSF, and it was enough for me to get started creating animations. At the beginning of my postdoc, I was able to take a more intensive animation course at the Gnomon School of Visual Effects in Hollywood, California. The course was a full day of classes for 10 weeks, and covered many aspects of animation.

Autodesk MayaSBN: What software do you use?

I use Autodesk Maya for animation.

SBN: How do you decide what to animate?

Most of the projects I work on are initiated by my collaborators. In some cases, they’ve been struggling getting an idea across to students or to colleagues, and have realized that a visualization of the process would help greatly.

SBN: What education and creativity does one need to be able to do science animation?

Many animators learn animation just from watching tutorials online or playing around with the program. There’s no requirement for formal education in either science or animation to become an animator -- just a healthy interest in both.

SBN: Was the PhD required for you to be able to create molecular animation?

For me, I think it helped a great deal. I doubt that I could create the types of animations I do now without having gone through graduate school first.

SBN: If there is one thing you recommend to students who are interested in molecular animation what would it be?

Check out, a website which has tutorials and examples to better help you learn. Also note that you can download educational versions of many commercial animation software (including Maya) for free.

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