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Science illustrations go viral

Speed read
  • University of Washington student creates award-winning science illustrations.
  • Virus playing cards educate and entertain.
  • NSF graduate fellowship gives peace of mind to researcher.

Science should be fun, says Eleanor Lutz.

Lutz, a US National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded researcher studying insect neurobiology at the University of Washington (UW), whips up some very cool science illustrations in her so-called ‘spare time.’

<strong>Cool science. </strong>Illustrations like this one are winning rave reviews for Eleanor Lutz, 2015 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship recipient. Courtesy Eleanor Lutz.

“In the same way some people play guitar on the weekends or go rock climbing, design is something I do because I genuinely enjoy it,” Lutz says. “I try to make the time to draw because I think having a work-life balance is important.” 

And what an incredible sense of balance Lutz has achieved. Available on her website, Tabletop Whale, her visualizations reveal a creative mind with a firm grasp on the subject matter.

Lutz’s most recent infographic is a set of virus trading cards. Each card offers a rotating 3D image of the virus capsid (the protein shell surrounding the viral DNA). Pertinent descriptive text such as scientific name, symptoms, and control measures frames the image.

To create the 3D models, Lutz used the US National Institute of Health (NIH)-funded molecular modeling program UCSF Chimera to visualize proteins she got from the worldwide Protein Data Bank.

<strong>Going viral. </strong>NSF-funded researcher Eleanor Lutz created this illustration using the open source modeling program Chimera. An animated view of the protein shell protecting the genetic material inside a virus is pictured. Courtesy Eleanor Lutz.

Lutz’s work has been featured in National Geographic, and a PBS documentary Creatures of Light. She has been honored by Wired for her map of Paris, lauded by FastCo for this flight infographic — all this and more at only 23 years of age.

While her talent is complex, her theory of good visualization is straightforward: “I think the best science visualizations show complicated ideas in simple ways,” she explains. “One of my favorite collections of science infographics is XKCD's book Thing Explainer, which only uses the 1,000 most common words in the English language.”

An investment from the NSF makes Lutz’s work at UW possible. Recipient of a 2015 graduate research fellowship, Lutz says she finds great peace of mind because of the grant.

“Not having to worry about my tuition and salary for the next few years has really taken a lot of the pressure off of the first year of grad school. I feel really lucky to be able to concentrate on my research without worrying about next quarter's funding. It’s an amazing fellowship.”

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