Observing Is Learning


A good part of our training as physicians and scientists is spent learning how to observe what is in front of us—and interpret it accurately.

Although the visual communication of science is not often discussed in scientific journals, its importance to the presentation of research findings was recently highlighted in a Nature blog. The contributor noted that images help present a “clearer scientific message,” and “reduce uncertainty.” Given that science crosses boundaries, experiences, and languages, a tool that reduces uncertainty is a currency of exceptional value.

Throughout HMS, there are hubs dedicated to creating, modifying, and maintaining a range of imaging tools, all in the service of visualizing science. One of these is our new cryo-EM facility, which allows investigators to elucidate molecular structures, a perspective necessary for achieving deep understanding of molecular mechanisms and designing novel therapeutics.

When existing tools aren’t quite adequate for the task, scientists innovate. They tinker and they tweak. Sometimes, they simply build a tool from scratch. In fact, scientists are often as facile with circuit boards and hex wrenches as they are with experimental design and computational analysis.

We recently invited our scientists to demonstrate how they use images to explain, illuminate, and celebrate their research. Faculty, trainees, and students shared images of the microscopic worlds they study and explained how their images articulate their research—and the beauty of life. Images came in from around the Quad—from cell biology, neurobiology, and microbiology, and from systems biology, genetics, and systems pharmacology.

Faculty who encouraged their students and trainees to participate in this exercise helped instill in our young researchers the value of communicating science and also underscored for them the importance of being scientifically “multilingual,” of sharing their work to increase the appeal of science and access to scientific research.

It has always been necessary to communicate science visually—just recall the power of our first look at the helical structure of DNA. Presenting science clearly and dynamically is especially vital today as we work to further cultivate the public’s engagement and understanding of the benefits of fundamental scientific inquiry.