Biocurious is a weblog about biology, quantified.

Origin of Life, Now in Video Form

by Andre on 4 June 2008

Janet Iwasa has had an unusual scientific career. After finishing her PhD with Dyche Mullins at UCSF she started a postdoc in Jack Szostak’s lab at Harvard but not to do bench work or even simulations like her postdoc colleagues. Instead, Janet is a full time animator and graphic designer. She takes the current work done in the lab and translates the experimental results and speculated mechanisms into beautiful animations. For more on her story, check out this post at Nature Network.

One of the results of her efforts is a recently completed web site on the origin(s) of life called Exploring Origins. It’s full of striking images and animations that depict RNA enzymes folding into their active structures, the dynamics of lipids in micelles and vesicles, and also more speculative processes like how micelles could have formed around an ancient geyser. And best of all, she’s used a creative commons license so her work is available for educational use including in presentations. If your interests overlap at all with hers then your future audiences are in for a treat because these videos can be used to quickly and entertainingly get across complex ideas.

Of course, this is just one of Iwasa’s projects and you can find more examples of her work on her website. I especially like the illustration of clathrin-mediated endocytosis.

  1. A Fernandez    2240 days ago    #

    Beautiful work. I wonder if it would be better to be a scientist and get into digital design or be a designer and learn science to have these skills.

  2. Andre    2240 days ago    #

    I would think that people with the two different backgrounds might fill slightly different niches. Maybe something like the difference between biophysics and biological physics? (I know, probably not helpful if that’s not your field)

    The nice thing about learning more science than you would need to learn to represent a particular result is that you can work more independently and I think this would be highly valued by colleagues. As Janet says in the Nature Network article: “I can show something to Jack [her postdoc advisor], and he’ll say, ‘Maybe this way is better supported by the literature,’ and he’ll refer me to some papers.”

  3. Janet    2240 days ago    #

    In case there’s interest in learning about molecular animation out there, a colleague has put together a great site with tutorials for Maya (some of which were written by me). You can check it out at:

    Of the folks I know doing similar stuff, I think about half come from medical illustration programs (which have only recently started covering molecular biology) and half come from PhD programs. I think there’s a ton to learn going in either direction!

  4. Steve    2239 days ago    #

    Janet, I checked out the site you suggested and I must say that it is excellent resource I’m now going to share with my friends. Thanks!

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