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The Art of Research: A Conversation with CMMT’s Medical Illustrators

August 30, 2013
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Erin Kenzie and Natalie Doolittle are two medical illustration/animation interns who have been working at CMMT this summer. Over the past couple of months, Erin has been working on a number of projects with Dr. Michael Hayden's lab; she is mid-way through a Masters in Biomedical Communications at the University of Toronto. Natalie recently completed her Master of Science in Biomedical Visualization from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is currently working on a number of projects with Dr. Wyeth Wasserman's lab.

"Autophagy: formation and maturation of an autophagolysosome" 

by Erin Kenzie for Dr. Dale Martin, Hayden Lab.

Q&A with Erin Kenzie (EK) & Natalie Doolittle (ND)

What led you to pursue medical illustration and animation?

ND: I was always interested in art and science, and this career path allowed me to pursue both. My grandfather was a medical illustrator in the sixties, and growing up surrounded by his anatomy paintings surely influenced my decision.

EK: I had studied science for five years and didn’t feel that research was the right direction for me. I wanted to get back into drawing, which I had neglected during my undergraduate years, so I turned down my masters at the time and went back to school to study art. Soon after, I discovered my current program, Biomedical Communications, and I haven’t looked back since.

What attracted you to CMMT?

ND: For me, molecular research is one of the final frontiers because there is so much we don’t know and can’t see. A lot of imagination is involved in visualizing the unknown. I wanted to explore this area more through illustration and animation.

EK: I love to travel, so the idea of exploring a new place while gaining work experience was really attractive to me and I had heard great things about the lab from a previous intern. When I found out that a family member had passed away from Huntington’s disease (HD)  soon after accepting the position, I developed a personal connection with the work I was going to be illustrating. 

What can a medical illustrator bring to research? 

EK: Medical illustrators tend to see things a little bit differently. My experience collaborating with researchers has taught me that this benefits both parties. Medical illustrators are able to engage in scientific dialogue and also ask thoughtful questions that sometimes lead to new ways of approaching a project. 

ND: Illustrations and animations have the ability to translate research numbers and graphs into something tangible for people. Visuals help them understand and get them excited about subjects that may otherwise be inaccessible. For molecular research in particular, illustrators can bring shape, form and movement to this hidden world.

"PKM2: prebound dimeric form" by Natalie Doolittle.  

How can an illustration communicate complex research to the lay public? Is this a challenge to do?

EK: Illustrations often clarify detailed interactions and processes in a way that make them far easier to digest. This is especially true for scientific concepts and even more so when the audience does not possess a solid foundation of knowledge in science. This can certainly be a challenge, but that's all part of the fun! The hardest thing I find is to remember which concepts and terms I can consider to be "common knowledge."

What are some interesting projects you are working on?

ND: Right now I am working on an animation for Dr. Wyeth Wasserman about transcription regulation as it pertains to a specific type of breast cancer. I recently finished illustrating some stills of the LFY gene for Dr. Francois Parcy, a professor visiting from France. My experience working with Dr. Parcy was a perfect example of illustrators helping researchers. Seeing how the proteins fit together in three dimensional space inspired him to think of a different hypothesis to test.

EK: I am working one piece that shows a binding hypothesis for the protein involved in HD and two pieces that show the mechanism for a potential therapy for HD. One of these projects has allowed me to explore a new program and use 3D technology to show something that is spatially complex.

"Tamoxifen-induced recombination using Cre-loxP system" by Erin Kenzie 

Created for Safia Ladha, Hayden Lab

To see more of Erin's work, visit To see more of Natalie's work, visit Vitae Studios