Look for me at the ACS Meeting

I will be in attendance next week at the ACS meeting in San Diego, mostly in the CARB, ORGN, and BIOL sessions, roughly in that order. I thought I'd take advantage of the meeting being local to see some talks, catch up with friends and clients, and maybe even try my hand at visual scribing, which is apparently a thing now. What I've seen of it so far looks pretty intense, but I do love the idea of illustrating talks on the spot. Sort of a mobile The Short Answer. A lot of companies are hiring illustrators to come to their meetings and doodle this sort of visual summary, or note-taking of the key points. 

I don't really have an image to go with this post, as I have not visually scribed, or scribben, anything yet. Instead here is a completely irrelevant and gratuitous image that I made as candidate cover art for Cell last year. It's about a device that is implanted into mouse heads that can deliver liquids and light to the brain simultaneously by remote control. 

Not now Mom we're working

Here's an image I did for the Mankad group at the University of Illinois at Chicago that came out today as a frontispiece to a concept article in Chemistry: a European Journal. It is about how catalysts with two metallic centers can cooperate to have superior properties, like better selectivity, over those with just one metallic center. For the inspiration for this piece I'd like to thank Rick Moranis's character from Ghostbusters, Pastafarians, and my sons, who don't look anything like the kids in this illustration but who do communicate with each other on a frequency unbeknownst to anyone else.

Mankad, N. P. “Selectivity Effects in Bimetallic Catalysis.” Chem. Eur. J. 2016, 22, Early View, doi: 10.1002/chem.201505002.


January Installation of The Short Answer

I spent about a week mulling over this paper in the back of my head, and I became fixated on coming up with a good metaphor to describe it. But, it is really complicated and I came to the conclusion that I would just end up having to explain the metaphor, which kind of defeats the purpose. Instead I took the approach of trying to explain it as well as I could by including prior work that puts this paper into perspective, and by walking through a fictional narrative that illustrates the early stages of the struggle of moving from hit to drug. In fact, the subject of this paper doesn't even come up until the last frame. But I hope it gives you a foothold to understand how a massive collection of data can help explain the mechanism of action of cancer drugs, and if you want to know more, check out the paper and the Broad Institute's Cancer Therapeutics Response Portal, where this treasure trove of data lives. 

Click HERE for a pdf of this issue. 


How we stop bacteria from turning us into the cellular equivalent of lambchobs

Here's a cartoon animation I did recently for a video highlighting recents advances from Sean Stowell's group at Emory University's School of Medicine. I landed this project thanks to a Short Answer I did on the subject in May of 2014, that alone making it a better marketing tool (though it was not at all intended as such) than sending out dozens of mailers, which I did years ago to no avail. 

These carbohydrate-binding proteins called galectins can fill a gap left in our immune system. You know how you can get a blood transfusion with someone else's blood as long as they have the same blood type, right? Turns out bacteria have found a way to exploit this and decorate themselves with those same blood group antigens, thus evading the immune system of anyone with the same "blood type" as them. Hence the idea of wolf in sheep's clothing. Luckily we have galectins that can kill these sneaky little microbes. Watch Sean below for a better explanation. Or read the blog post by Quinn Eastman at Emory, where this video appears, HERE

The, ahem, November installment of The Short Answer

This is ridiculously late. The sad thing is that I finished it last weekend and then forgot about it because I have five projects right now (down from seven). Freelance is always feast or famine and I guess everyone wants to wrap things up before the end of the year. Not complaining. Anyway, here is the latest. I am toying with the idea of making The Short Answer purely a comic, as opposed to my previous design (background, hypothesis, approach, results, conclusions). As it turns out, this is WAY more work, especially when drawing people is involved. Maybe I'll go back to drawing zebrafish. Better yet, there will surely be a good paper out on C. elegans next month... 

When a Target gift card just won't cut it

Lately I've been getting requests for artwork to be given as gifts, which is something that I never would have even thought to offer as a service, but it is such a great idea. In this Etsy era of handmade personalized gifts, what's more personal than a gift that celebrates someone's specific contributions to science? While I was wondering why I never thought of this before, I realized that I've sort of been doing it for years. For instance I often draw Valentine's Day cards that are based on the science that the hubs is doing at the time. I remember one card during his postdoc that read, "Roses are red, Violets are blue, If you were a phosphotyrosine, I would be SH2." Or something like that. It never occurred to me that this could be done on a larger scale.  

One recent request came from the wife of a researcher at HHMI's Janelia Research Campus. He had published a paper in Science and was about to be promoted to group leader. She wanted something special to mark these exciting (and apparently unrelated) events, and thought that some original artwork for his new office would be just the thing. So I read the Science paper, which is about a calcium-binding fluorescent protein they designed that can detect activation of neurons by their change in calcium concentration. Upon action potential firing, calcium ions barge into the cell, and that leads to a shift from green to red fluorescence of the protein when hit with a certain wavelength of light. Using this probe, they were able to image the whole brain in mice, flies, and, remarkably, freely swimming zebrafish larvae. They saw specific regions of the brain lighting up when the organisms did things like smell an aromatic compound, "hear" a specific vibrational frequency, or have to process the changing directions of a grating. I assume the last one lights up the part of the brain that gets activated when I have to look at a map upside down. Actually I think the portion of my brain that is supposed to carry out that function has been replaced by recordings of Yakety Sax, aka the Benny Hill theme song. Anyway, this calcium-sensing protein is called calcium-modulated photoactivatable ratiometric integrator, or CaMPARI, which is also a popular red-colored liqueur known for its bitter flavor. When I started looking at some old posters for Campari the aperitif, I came across the original 1920's poster depicting a clown inside of an orange peel holding a bottle of Campari. The orange peel reminded me of the structure of CaMPARI, so I thought it would be funny if the clown was replaced with a cute little zebrafish larva and the orange peel by the actual protein structure. You can't really tell in this image, but the original clown has white polka dots on his red pajamas. These were replaced by neurons on the zebrafish (my client's idea). Most of them are green, but in a few small regions they are lighting up red. The recipient of this bizarre parody found it in his new office alongside a card with the original poster image as shown below. I was relieved to hear that he was quite pleased with it.

In another project, the sister of a soon-to-be assistant professor of polymer science and engineering contacted me to commission a piece of artwork for her brother's new office. His work has two main themes. One is optically functional polymers, so for example, a polymer that can take light and convert it to a higher frequency. The other is stimuli-responsive materials, or polymers (generally) that change properties (ie. color, local concentration of a molecule, etc.) when stimulated with something like light, mechanical stress, etc. Interestingly, the sister who hired me is a Ph.D. biochemist. I am working on tracking down the parents for their playbook. 

I have two more of these possibly in the works and I hope it catches on. It's fun to be a part of such a thoughtful gesture. I am inspired to up my game this Christmas. 

Latest installment of The Short Answer

I've been wanting to do a paper from ACS Central Science, a brand new open access journal that covers a range of topics with chemistry at the heart of everything. This paper was exciting to me because it not only links two molecules that are the basis for ongoing clinical trials for cancer, but it also links two of my long-time scientific heroes.

Am I boring you?

Yesterday I got trapped by a car nap. Neither of my kids can be transferred from car to bed so sometimes this happens. I assume it's because we are really really boring. It reminded me of the time when the hubs and I were talking about some transcription factor in the car and we turned around to find our older son fast asleep, nowhere near his nap time. Anyway, there are worse things than getting trapped by car naps. I had a coffee and a sketchbook and nothing else I could be doing. Poor me. 

Do you want the good news or the bad news first?

So the bad news is that this image was not chosen for the cover of this week's issue of Nature. It was beaten out by something quite literally more sexy. It is a stunning photograph of an Australian bearded dragon, which is now the first reptile to have been found to undergo sex reversal in the wild. Add to that a temperature dependence to the sex determination that has scientists wondering about their ability to adapt to climate change. Hard to compete with that. 

    A colloidal quantum dot spectrometer.  Bao J ,  Bawendi MG .   Nature.   2015 Jul 1;523(7558):67-70. doi: 10.1038/nature14576.


A colloidal quantum dot spectrometer. Bao JBawendi MG.  Nature. 2015 Jul 1;523(7558):67-70. doi: 10.1038/nature14576.

The good news is that variations of the image that I also made for the project were picked up by various news outlets including the MIT News Office,  Popular MechanicsSciFeedsScitech DailyProduct Design and Development, and myScience. I had to give Popular Mechanics a little tap on the shoulder to remind them to credit the image to me, but they acknowledged and fixed their mistake faster than an Australian bearded dragon can say. "What the what? I thought those were going to be ovaries!"


The latest installment

Since I don't have all of the time in the world to work, I tend to do a lot of my thinking about projects when I'm away from my desk and doing dishes, driving, or, as the current installment of The Short Answer suggests, playing with my 3 year old son.

Sneak preview of this month's The Short Answer

Having been thoroughly disappointed by the quality of pen lines I could get in Photoshop, I splurged and bought a Rapidograph ink pen. SO I thought I'd give a try with this month's The Short Answer. It's real ink on real paper! Imagine that.

These ninja inteins were inspired by the following paper. Look for the final version in the next couple of days!

Chemical tagging and customizing of cellular chromatin states using ultrafast trans-splicing inteins.

David Y, Vila-Perelló M, Verma S, Muir TW.

Nat Chem. 2015 May;7(5):394-402. doi: 10.1038/nchem.2224. Epub 2015 Apr 6.

Does this mean I can call myself an award-winning science illustrator now?

As I mentioned in the last post, I am excited to have won this cover art competition for Nature Chemical Biology's 10th anniversary issue, which just came out today:

The piñata is sort of celebratory - because what 10 year old journal doesn't want a piñata at their birthday party? I assume they also had a bouncy house and large inflatable slide. An early sketch I did had the stick as the "1", but that just ended up looking like a "0" getting beat up, which didn't really make any sense.

Another drawing I did for the competition was a little more bizarro.. The call for submissions asked for something having to do with the future of chemical biology, and I thought that many if not most chemical biologists have their eye on the ultimate prize of finding new therapeutic interventions for human diseases. Hence the medicine cabinet full of molecules. 

And one other design I made was based on the fact that it seems like neurobiology is going to play a large role in the at least near future of chemical biology since that seems to be where a lot of money and effort is going right now. So this is the structure of the acetylcholine receptor from the side view and from the top view, with some neurons hanging out in the background.


My prize for winning the competition was not just getting my artwork on the cover, but also a year's subscription to Nature Chemical Biology. So look for a lot of The Short Answer installments coming from there in the next year.  

Lucky Number 10

This is my 10th journal cover, and it was for a journal that is apparently celebrating its 10th anniversary. Also in April, I learned that I had won a cover art competition for Nature Chemical Biology's 10th anniversary issue (will share that when it comes out). My string of good luck has included being very busy with work, so 10 is also roughly the number of consecutive days that I've been working late nights to keep up, and the minimum % ABV beer that I will enjoy when I finally get a night off.

The paper highlighted on the cover below is about an arginine deiminase called PAD2 that is activated through a series of calcium ions binding to the enzyme in a particular order. As a co-activator of the estrogen receptor in breast cancer cells, it's a pretty important therapeutic target. The padlock in the active site was chosen because the corresponding author has a company called Padlock Therapeutics that was built on this basic research, so the idea is that the calcium ions are unlocking activity. 

Happy Birthday, The Short Answer!

This month marks one year since the inception of the illustrated journal club (of one) series known as The Short Answer. If you have been following these, you may have noticed that I haven't really settled on a particular style, or even a consistent format. I'm still not sure what I'm doing with these; they are my place to play. Some I am more proud of than others. But one unintended consequence is that it has brought me a few new clients, since I always share them with the authors. My science writer/communication guru friend calls this content marketing. Others might call it the old strategy of giving them something for free. I hadn't really considered any of this when I set out to make these. I suppose it's a lot of work to reach a very small audience, but it is exactly the audience I want to reach, and that's not really the reason I do it anyway. 

So without further ado, here is the anniversary installment. The reason that it is the 9th issue is that with the arrival of my second son in August, I had to drop it down to every other month for a while. I hope to get back to monthly installments soon. I also hope to fit into my shorts by summertime. As the hubs says, "We all want things."


Got the Chem Comm Cover!

This came out today, with cover art I made for the Szymczak Lab at the University of Michigan. They found that certain ligands in a copper-fluoride complex result in the trapping of the fluoride ion via hydrogen bonds after a change in copper's oxidation state would have otherwise let the fluoride go. When I read the manuscript, the first thing that popped into my head was that the hydrogen bonds were creating a sort of cobweb effect to capture the departing F-, then quickly disregarded it as silly. Soon after that, my client e-mailed me that he had had an idea about using cobwebs and spiders, but that as he was writing it he began realizing that it sounded silly. So as fate would have it, the spider metaphor persisted.

  Image reproduced by permission of Nathaniel K. Szymczak from   Chem. Commun.  , 2015,   51  , 5490. Image credit: O’Reilly Science Art, LLC.

Image reproduced by permission of Nathaniel K. Szymczak from Chem. Commun., 2015, 51, 5490. Image credit: O’Reilly Science Art, LLC.

The Short Reminder

Just a reminder that The Short Answer is on an every 2-month installment schedule for now, so check back at the end of March for the next one. In the meantime please enjoy this image of some organelles that I have made available for your viewing pleasure. I made it using Maya and Photoshop, but it's for an animation I'm working on using the ultra high-end animation package known as PowerPoint. It's so cutting edge that the Hollywood studios haven't even caught on yet. Ha. Suckers. 

The 20-year plan

One of my old high school classmates posted this photo on Facebook earlier this week: 

Then I noticed that the photo was taken exactly 20 years ago today. It was the spring semester of my senior year of high school and since I had nearly completed my coursework, I was blissfuly spending nearly all day everyday in the art room. I had let go of the idea of going to art school since my mother succeeded in convincing me that it would be wise to have something else to fall back on. "Don't you also really like chemistry?!" It was true, I did. But as far as I knew an actual career in chemistry meant sitting at a bench all day doing acid-base titrations as your goggles fogged over and at the time it seemed a fate worse than the cancellation of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

I had vague ideas of combining science and art but didn't know what that sort of career would look like either. So I wasn't particularly excited about my prospects for the future and I certainly didn't foresee falling in love with research. Four years after this photo was taken, I had nearly completed my coursework at Purdue, and I was blissfully spending nearly all day every day in the lab. 

Fifteen years after this photo was taken I finally figured out how to combine my two loves. It helped that I now had google, which proved much more resourceful than my parents' encyclopedia set, and I was a bona fide grown-up who could pick up the phone and talk to lots of other science illustrators. And I was, and still am, very excited about my prospects for the future. 

As for the rest of the crew in this picture, I've lost touch with most of them. We lost Jonathon at a tragically young age to cancer. He was as amazing a person as he was an artist and he is still very much missed by many. Amy and I had been friends since the fifth grade, and she and I were sipping tea in my kitchen just a month or two ago. You can see her gorgeous paintings here: http://www.amymnorman.com/

Tough actin' Teixobactin

This animation is an old one, but I'm rerunning it in honor of the article out in Nature today about an antibiotic that is crushing all sorts of nasty drug-resistant bacteria. Super scary MRSA? Check. Mycobacterium tuberculosis? Uh huh. Even the bacteria that causes pneumonia (or ammonia, as I sadly heard it referred to recently by a healthcare worker). Because of the unique mode of action of the antibiotic, it is unlikely to lead to resistance, and indeed was unable to yield drug resistant strains in a laboratory test. I would love to go more into it; it's a great story. Maybe the next The Short Answer.

For now I'll just cross my fingers that teixobactin makes it through the safety studies in humans and is on the shelves before my sons start playing organized sports. Every time I hear about MRSA in locker rooms I want to hide all of the sports equipment. "What's that? Oh I thought you said Mathlete. Soooorry."