The Art of Science

The Art of Science

A picture is worth a thousand words – and a million hits
The Art of Science

Credit: Justine Ruddy

David Goodsell, creator of the Protein Data Bank's Molecule of the Month, uses art to explain science.

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 recently completed his 136th 'Molecule of the Month,' a series of graphics featured in the  Protein Data Bank, a repository
of 70, 000 molecular structures used 
by researchers and educators throughout the world.

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.

Structural Biology of HIV

Goodsell's illustration of the structural biology of HIV.

 “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.”