Research through visualisation:
an example

The idea of this approach is to support scientific research through the many tools of visualisation. These include classic visualisation techniques, such as drawing and painting, but involve digital techniques such as 3D visualisation and scene-building as well. Design techniques also include physical experiments, using, for example, 3D printing. In the approach described here, these art and design techniques go hand in hand with state-of-the-art scientific molecular visualisation tools and with lab experiments. 


My PhD in the field of molecular biochemistry allows me to understand complex scientific contents and to exploit art and design methods for the final goal of understanding unknown (molecular ) mechanisms via "physical hypothesis building" and related experimental suggestions.

See below an overview over the process and a more detailed example.

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You, the client, approach me with a scientific question. After I will have familiarised myself with the topic, we will be working together closely by sharing and exchanging ideas, insights, and visual material that will help us come up with a model or hypothesis. We will continue this collaboration by performing experiments, you in the lab and I with the tools available to me in order to confirm our hypotheses. Finally I visualise the scenery in the format and for the purposes that you'll have decided upon.

1. Observation or scientific question

All scientific research starts with an observation and a related question.


In this example we are trying to find out about the exact looks of the SARS-CoV-2 virus (outside and inside), as well as about the mechanisms of its entering the host cell and the release of RNA.

2. Literature and image research

I start by familiarising myself with the topic and research question.


Have there been similar observations in the past? If yes, how do they relate to the current question?


In this example, I needed to collect the major proteins that are present in the SARS-CoV-2 virus and necessary for the entry into the host cell, i.e. additional proteins on the host cell surface.


I read about the mechanism of virus entry into the host cell and about the mechanism of RNA release. I need to pay attention to all the little details in order to imagine (and later visualise) the cellular scenery as accurately as possible. Therefore, I collect visual material, too.


This can be images that are as close to reality as it gets, microscopic and crystal structures if possible. It'll also be schematic images that describe pathways and mechanisms related to the topic I am interested in.

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Examples of references that inform about the outside looks of the virus:


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Examples of references that inform about the inside looks of the virus:


Chen et al (2007)

3. Model- and Hypothesis building

I collect the building blocks for the final model by  sketching the previously researched information in relation to each other, for example in terms of size and location. I investigate as many details about the molecular scenery as possible. In this example these include information such as:

  • spike proteins wiggle in order to find receptors

  • open and closed conformations of spike protein 

  • host receptors that are involved

  • assembly of nucleocapsid

  • manner of RNA wrapping around the N-protein

In state-of-the-art research where little is known about the answer to the research question, this process helps building the molecular environment around the phenomenon of interest, thereby coming up with hypotheses and experimental ideas.

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4. Computational/ experimental confirmation

At this point, the hypotheses and ideas from the previous step are tested either by me through bioinformatic tools, or by the client experimentally in the lab, or both. Methods I use include analyses of protein structures and interactions with docking and structure analysis tools, but also 3D assembly of protein complexes, or 3D printing of such. The use of 3D printed proteins as a jigsaw approach to docking can help to access novel insights and is great for complementing actual docking results that have been obtained through bioinformatic tools such as Haddock. 

In this present example, this step was not necessary.


5. Visualisation Process

The visualisation process can be split into the dynamic part of "scientific visualisation" and the part of "mediative visualisation ".

Scientific visualisation in this context refers to the gain of knowledge through visualisation, while mediative visualisation refers to the final product that summarises these discoveries in an image or animation for the purpose of communication.

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6. Final product and applications

The final product(s) can be anything from a line drawing over a single fully rendered image to an image series or animation. These can be used for several purposes such as further developing ideas in this research area, use as infographics or journal covers (as shown in the mock-up below). Animations can advertise the respective lab's work and achievements or communicate important findings to other researchers or to the public.

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