As a University of Toronto student, Naveen Devasagayam produced this intricate image illustrating the complex biochemical landscape within a living cell. Photo credit: Naveen Devasagayam
JAK-STAT is the biochemical handle for an intricate signalling pathway that cells use to receive chemical information using phosphorylated proteins. Describing this process in words is a challenging, jargon-laden affair, but Naveen Devasagayam turned it into a colourful, detailed, prize-winning animation that is elegant and downright entertaining. So much so that the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) named him as one of their top five research storytellers for 2015, a distinction that came with $3,000 and an invitation to discuss this work at the SSHRC Impact Awards ceremony in Ottawa late last year.
Devasagayam currently works for one of Toronto’s many medical illustration firms, but the JAK-STAT animation was his master’s thesis project in the University of Toronto’s Biomedical Communications program. Jodie Jenkinson, his adviser for this work, says the goal was part of an ongoing effort to visualize molecular interactions in more meaningful ways. “One of the things we’re interested in is context,” Jenkinson says, pointing to standard educational materials that portray biochemical events too narrowly, so that the viewer has no sense of how these reactions fit into the function of cells, tissues, or organs. “We wanted to create a highly complex animation — one that was more immersive, where the camera follows molecules through the environment — then compare the benefits of this representation with a less immersive, cross-sectional view.”
As part of his work with Jenkinson, Devasagayam produced an infographic that captures the multifaceted relationships between molecular structure, composition and spatial orientation within the tight confines of a living cell. Based on structural details from the Research Collaboratory for Structural Bioinformatics Protein Data Bank, the result is intended to be not just accurate but highly engaging for students. Devasagayam recalls the shortcomings of such graphics and animations while he was doing his undergraduate degree in biomedical sciences at the University of Guelph. “There’s so much more than we realize when it comes to the molecular world,” Devasagayam says, referring to a growing body of scientific imagery that is beginning to capture complex chemistry in ways that can easily be dubbed artistic. “I wanted to work with molecular visualizations because they represent things we don’t necessarily notice or even easily grasp. It was the ability to readily explain these things that has drawn me into this field — no pun intended.”