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Science Artist Wins Medical Illustrators Award

A simple geometric model, left, represents the internal anatomy of a cilium showing the axoneme core built from microtubule doublets; right, is a more detailed cross sectional study of the axoneme structure. | Science/Chris Bickel

Chris Bickel, senior scientific illustrator at AAAS, has won the Award of Merit in the editorial category for his cover illustration “Miniature Railroad,” an honor the Association of Medical Illustrators presented at its 2016 Annual Meeting in Atlanta.

Bickel’s winning piece depicts the findings of a study by Ludek Stepanek and Gaia Pigino, who clarified a cellular mechanism. The system, called “intraflagellar transport,” or IFT, is a process that allows cells to ship molecular cargo down the length of tentacle-like structures known as cilia that extend from the cell body and aid in motility and signaling.

For years, scientists have understood that cells send IFT trains up and down paired protein tubes – called microtubule doublets – that act as a skeleton within the cilia. However, they did not know how the transportation system could operate so quickly – and without the trains colliding.

Stepanek and Pigano showed that the doublets are used as a kind of two-track railway, with transit away from the cell always moving on one microtubule, and transit toward the cell on its partner.

Bickel was recognized for his ability to showcase this multifaceted process effectively in one striking image. “This cover was a struggle because it was so complex,” said Alberto Cuadra, graphic managing editor at Science and Chris’ direct supervisor for this cover. “It was difficult to find the balance between complexity and dynamism.” But Cuadra did not doubt that Bickel was up to the task. “The guy basically does magic with 3D,” he said.

Bickel considered it important to capture the complexity of the intracellular machinery in the cover image, especially because the intricate structures and mechanisms were essential to the study’s results. Working with the authors of the study, and using published protein data, he was able to ensure that the cellular building blocks and machines in his image were as accurate as possible.

The winning cover illustration depicts a cellular mechanism called “intraflagellar transport” that allows cells to ship molecular cargo up and down the length of cilia. | Science/Chris Bickel

The composition of the piece was equally important. “We needed to create a composition that elicited a lot of movement,” said Bickel, referencing both the darting IFT trains in the foreground and the whip-like motion of the cilium that extends into the background. This element of motion was essential to depicting the major take-home of the article: that these molecular structures allow rapid transport in a dynamic part of the cell.

The final challenge was making this complex and dynamic image as easy as possible for readers to digest, a task that Bickel accomplished with an inspired use of color. “With this basic … but effective use of color theory, we really quickly get that the red guys are on the red rail and the blue guys are on the blue one, and they’re not colliding,” explained Bickel of his “nearly complementary” color scheme.

The combined elements resulted in one of Bickel’s most impressive images to date, not only in terms of style, but also sheer scale. The 3D scenes that Bickel designs using Cinema 4D software usually consume anywhere from 100 kilobytes to 20 megabytes of data on his hard drive. This scene, featuring around 10 million instances of cell membrane phospholipids alone, required a monstrous 2.7 gigabytes of storage space.

Chris Bickel takes honor for expertly illustrating a complex but vital transport system that cells deploy. | AAAS/Sarah Bickel

Bickel considers the award highly significant, particularly because he credits the Association of Medical Illustrators with being instrumental to his success as an illustrator, and holds many of his fellow members, including the judges in this competition, in high esteem. Bickel joined the AMI thirteen years ago while earning his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Medical Illustration at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y.  Since then, Bickel has taken advantage of the various conferences and workshops that the association provides both for technical education and professional development.

Ian Suk, a professor of Neurosurgery and Art as Applied to Medicine at Johns Hopkins University and a judge of Bickel’s piece remarked that the image, “exemplified a great editorial illustration that beautifully summarized the content of a scientific article…. Award-wise, it was a no-brainer.”

“[Suk] is someone I look up to tremendously,” Bickel said in response. “I’m proud of this piece. I think it’s a solid piece of art and I’m really happy and humbled that it took any sort of recognition at the AMI.”


Colin O'Connor

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