For most of the past three years Leonie Herson has been living a hectic dual existence.
The medical scientist’s life has been largely “lab by day, computer by night” as she has worked to develop and execute the skills required for both cancer research and scientific animation.
The results of her labours are now well and truly in the public domain with the premiere of her first short film, The Micro Messengers, at the Spunky Bruiser Gallery Space in Sydney’s Darlinghurst.
Herson, who graduated from UTS with a Medical Science degree in 2015, is the first Masters of Science (Research) student to undertake a multidisciplinary project combining scientific research, design in biomedical animation and scientific illustration.
Herson says her co-supervisors, Associate Professor Stella Valenzuela and UTS Design School lecturer Deborah Szapiro, understood her creative drive and helped to develop the research project.
Her research into cancer-related bio-markers, “tiny packages” called microvesicles found in bodily fluids, would be translated into a film with animations, visualising the science for a broader audience.
Szapiro says she loves science and is very interested in science animation. Herson’s deep interest in both art and science made the project a logical step.
“Science animation has come a long way in the past 10 years and involves the same creative decisions you make in any animated film, coupled with scientific rigour,” Szapiro says.
Herson faced a steep learning curve as she “entered a world of storyboarding scripts, learning how to do 2D and 3D animations and film live action”.
With UTS support Herson embraced the Australian biomedical animator community, inspiring her to enter a Visualising Biological Data competition, run by VIZBIPlus. As runner-up she won a solo art exhibition sponsored by Spunky Bruiser and the chance to premiere The Micro Messengers. She also earned the chance to collaborate on a limited-edition garment range combining science with Spunky Bruiser’s “pop culture ethic”.
Designer Bex Frost, who with Christian Olea created the Spunky Bruiser sustainable clothing label, says Herson’s work “really lends itself to being incorporated into print patterns and visually stands alone regardless of the scientific meaning and relevance”.
“Some of her work has almost a tribal pattern style which immediately struck me as something that would apply easily into fabric design,” Frost says.
“Having Leonie's work exhibited for the month will open up conversations about science that would not otherwise be had in our public space.”
The conversations that flow from science visualisation also have an impact back at the laboratory bench.
UTS scientists are investigating use of microvesicles and their protein cargo as biomarkers for early detection of hard-to-diagnose cancers. Illustration: Leonie Herson
Valenzuela, Associate Head of School (Research) in the School of Life Sciences, says the visualisation process has helped make the experiments “more efficient, increasingly well-designed and better controlled”.
Szapiro says visualisation is a “very powerful tool. The really exciting work is when animation is used to further the research process … in visualising research it often shows patterns and new ways of ‘reading’ and piecing together research,” she says.
Valenzuela and Szapiro see value in providing a pathway for science students who want to enter the biomedical animation and science communication area.
“Australian science animators are highly respected in the field,” Szapiro says.
Herson is already visualising her dream job: “When I was an undergraduate I thought I’d become a research assistant. Doing the Masters I realised I could become a creative director, making medical animations. My goal is to step into that industry and see where it takes me.”