The Art of Science
A picture is worth a thousand words – and a million hits
For more than a decade, David Goodsell has been capturing the imagination of his audience by telling a good story, creating magnificent artwork and fervently believing in his message.
Goodsell is not a filmmaker. Not a writer of fiction. He doesn’t create high-tech video games. Goodsell is a molecular biologist with a passion: to explain visually and in terms non-scientists can understand what role the molecular structure of proteins play in health and human life.
And at a time when the National Center for Education Statistics says that only 72 percent of fourth graders, 63 percent of eighth graders and 60 percent of 12th-graders have even a basic understanding of science; his audience should be getting larger.
“Art is a great way to comprehend and explain science,” says Goodsell, associate professor of molecular biology at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California who recently spoke to a structural biology honors class. “With a picture, you don’t have to be experienced with molecular structures to see how they work.”
Goodsell, who describes himself as a scientist-artist, has just created his 136th “Molecule of the Month.” The series of columns and detailed graphics are featured prominently in the Rutgers-based RCSB Protein Data Bank, a database of more than 70, 000 molecular structures used by scientists and researchers throughout the world to solve the mysteries of human disease and by educators and students to further their understanding of biology.
“There has always been a close connection between science and art,” says Helen Berman, RCSB PDB Director and Board of Governors Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. “David knows both the science and the art so he can use this knowledge to help people comprehend what they are learning.”
What is different about “Molecule of the Month”, Goodsell and Berman say, is that the program makes it easier to find a given topic in the database. Click on Health and Disease, for instance, and you get a variety of icons from which to choose. Go to toxins, select anthrax toxin and up pops vibrant three-dimensional drawings of the molecules with a clear and concise 300-word explanation of what affect the deadly compound would have on the body.
“It makes it much easier for new visitors to the PDB to jump in and explore the structures,” says Goodsell who still creates his computer-generated graphics with a program he developed as a post-graduate student almost 20 years ago.
To create his drawings, watercolors, and graphic images that have been published on the cover of science journals and magazines and displayed in museum galleries, Goodsell has studied images of cells with electron microscopes, and techniques like nuclear magnetic resonance and x-ray crystallography, which determine the arrangement of atoms in a molecule.
He never received any formal training as an artist, other than a few art classes. He credits the artistic side of his craft to watching his grandfather, a watercolorist, as a child. The scientist side of him painstakingly works to make certain that his depictions are as close to what he thinks their proper shape and dimensions to be even though all molecular structures he creates are not known.
“You have to always remember that if you publish a molecular picture it can have a long history, so you want to get it right,” Goodsell told Berman’s class of 15 structural biology students after showing them his recent artistic depiction of the HIV virus and comparing it to images published over the past 20 years by other artists and scientists.
These intricate scientific renderings can be found on websites, on posters and in books, on the cover of magazines and in newspapers, he told students. It is a way to tell a complicated story, but they’re not always completely accurate.
“You have to be careful,” Goodsell advised the class. “It’s easy to get caught up in the graphics and lose sight of the science. It’s important to be aware of that before you start.”