Biotech Pioneers

How to Get to Create the Future




Miriah Meyer
Computer Scientist, University of Utah
Creates programs that chart and visualize biological data for use by scientists

Janet Iwasa
Molecular Animator, Harvard University
Produces animations with researchers to help them test and uncover hypotheses about molecular processes

Nina Tandon
Research Scientist, Columbia University
Creates cardiac tissue for potential use in human transplants

what does the biotech field need more of?

"Designers, visualization researchers, and human-computer-interaction experts are in short supply. We've done an awesome job over the past decade of developing technology to collect and process data, and yet the most popular tool on a biologist's desktop is Excel."

"Our hypotheses in molecular biology are becoming increasingly complex, but the ways in which biologists are visualizing these hypotheses remain relatively crude. Having better models will allow researchers to see their work in a different light and to formulate different and better questions."

"We need more people embracing science. We need more kids, young kids, U.S. citizens who are psyched about it--especially young girls.

How can creativity improve your field?

"My work has been heavily influenced by several close collaborations with designers, who help me design and create tools. For example, one of them, Pathline, integrates information about how genes work together in a cell with measurements of gene activity levels over time in multiple related species. That's all charted in various ways.

"I'm always thinking about aesthetics. While scientific accuracy is of utmost importance in my models and animations of molecules, I'm also looking for a pleasing balance of color, shape, and lighting. The better I can make a molecule look, the more a researcher or student is likely to look at it, and the more they can gain scientifically."

"My first exposure to bioelectricity was with music: I was designing and building theremins, an instrument that capitalizes on our body's ability to interfere with circuits. Now I'm collaborating with another TED fellow to try to make a musical instrument out of the cells in my lab. So art and science seem to continually overlap in my life."

What impediment do you often come across?

"In talking with biologists, I often reach dead ends as I try to learn about their work flows and scientific problems. We get stuck in some deep discussion about the nuances of their research, so I try to back up and discuss something different to help me better calibrate their needs. Keep a user talking for as long as possible; the more they talk, the more likely you are to hit on an idea that you can run with."

"Making out-of-the-box software--designed for animating people and animals--work for animating molecules and cells isn't easy. I've dealt with this in two ways: just tinkering around on the computer in my animation software until I come to a reasonable solution; or getting away from my computer, going for a walk, sleeping on it, or chatting with fellow animators."

"A lot of the problems revolve around equipment or technology. When it's an equipment problem, I like to start with things that do work. I start taking the hardware apart until it does things in a predictable way. Then I rebuild it to see at what point it fails. I make a diagnosis, like a doctor."