Renowned scientific illustrator blends art and science for cell biology students

World-renowned artist and scientist David Goodsell spoke with students in Cell Biology, a 400-level class taught by Dr. Karen Schmeichel, via Zoom recently from the Scripps Research Institute in California.

August 2020 Nature magazine cover of a scientific illustration depicting the COVID virus.

The cover of the August 2020 issue of Nature magazine shows Dr. Goodsell’s scientific illustration depicting the COVID virus.

Dr. Goodsell is professor of computational biology at the Scripps Research Institute, where he uses computer graphics and simulation to study the structure and function relationships in key biological systems.

But, he is perhaps best known as the father of molecular visualization — one of the first in the world to produce molecular graphics.

Most recently, he became famous for his watercolor painting of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which first appeared on the cover of the August 2020 issue of Nature magazine and quickly became a well-known depiction of COVID.

Though he has no formal art training, Dr. Goodsell developed his own unique style of scientific illustration over the years after becoming interested in the art form while in graduate school. His methods for creating illustrations vary, depending on the subject. His depictions of individual proteins, for example, are typically generated via computer generation, while his cellular interiors are created by hand using watercolors.

“We learned from Dr. Goodsell not only about the importance of using visual models to understand science, but also about how visual models can improve scientific literacy and education outside of the lab environment,” said Dr. Schmeichel. “And his images are just so darn beautiful!!!!”

The science superstar also drew in other faculty members. “I sat in on the class, since I was excited to meet Dr. Goodsell and the students were engaged the whole time,” said Dr. Lea Alford.

To prepare the students for an engaging and equitable conversation, Dr. Schmeichel used MURAL, a collaborative digital mural board building app. Students were required to develop questions for Dr. Goodsell and the MURAL board was shared with him ahead of time. This innovative pedagogy prepared students for an external speaker while exposing Dr. Schmeichel’s students directly to the interdisciplinary field of scientific illustration.

One student, Jaziba Bahri ’23, a biology major who plans to pursue scientific illustration, even had the opportunity to have a one-on-one conversation with Dr. Goodsell and get his advice on a career in this field he pioneered.

Much of Dr. Goodsell’s artwork is available for free to download from his website.

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