Scientific animation as tool

Scientific animation as a tool for researchers and science communication.

Have you seen the high-end scientific animations about inner life of a cell?
A three minute animation shows a whole chapter of a textbook in a mind blowing manner. This kind of animation exceeds by far what a statistical researcher needs in their work. However, simple and relatively easy to produce videos or animations are a great tool to deliver your message efficiently. Animations can enliven your presentations as well as your websites and consequently, generate more interest in your work.

Animations in research communication.
Some signs that indicate an animation may be a better way to communicate your message than a static illustration:

    • the schematic representation of your model contains six or more consecutive steps;
    • your schematic representation tries to show simultaneous processes (for example you need to use more than three arrows to indicate what’s going on);
    • you want to represent a highly complex structure or data (three layers of complexity or more);
    • the processes you want to represent are spatially and dimensionally dynamic;
    • your model tries to combine several orders of magnitude in scale or time.

Depending on your topic, an animated version of your basic schematic representation may be already a good solution. In this case all you need to do is to separate your detailed image into several images containing individual steps that can be easily animated in your presentation. For molecular topics, going from a single image of a 3D representation to an animated version is usually just a step away, and may bring a way clearer message. Many software tools used routinely by scientists can be employed to this end (Chimera, Pymol, VMD… ). Where there is will, there is usually a way, too!

Animations in higher education.
Computer animations are still a relatively new educational tool that helps students, in particular, to better understand spatially and dynamically complex processes. Moreover, it has been demonstrated that using animations to communicate temporally and spatially dynamic ideas and processes reduces the abstraction associated with them. Simply put, shown as an animation, students grasp the process as a whole instead of seeing it as a collection of individual steps.

Videos in science popularization.
If you asked around on a street, most people would tell you that images and short videos or animations are the best way to get their attention and make them interested in a scientific message. So if a science popularization event comes up next time, try producing a short video on your topic of choice and be assured of a more interactive reaction of your audience. Your video does not have to be very elaborate, actually simpler is better, in particular if it turns out a bit funny, too. Humour is always a great way to engage with a non-specialist audience.

Videos helping to commercialize a scientific result.
If your research yields a result that can be commercialized, you’re likely to want to licence it or find investors and customers to turn it into a company. In such cases, I would argue, video is the tool to go for. Depending on the topic, it can be a footage shot with a camera or an animated sequence or a combination of both. These videos should be short and outline a patented process or highlight specific advantages in a process in a clear and accessible manner. Instead of spending hours trying to make potential investors or industrial partners understand the basics, this type of video can get your discussion quickly to a level where details are sorted out. In this context, a short video is simply a fast lane to convince your potential partners and customers and get your project going.

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Sources and further reading:
J H Iwasa, Bringing macromolecular machinery to life using 3D animation, Current Opinion in Structural Biology, Volume 31, April 2015, pp 84-88.
P. McClean et al. Molecular and cellular biology animations. Development and Impact on Student Learning. Cell Biology Education, 4(2), 2005, pp 169–179 (+ citations therein).