Tag Archives: Hannah Hickey

Science images too busy/ugly? Call the University of Washington’s Design Help Desk

After several days at the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) 2012 annual meeting, I can definitely support the design help desk project at the University of Washington (UW). From the Feb. 22, 2012 news item by Hannah Hickey on physorg.com,

A group of University of Washington researchers has launched a unique experiment matching science students with those in design. The new Design Help Desk, similar to a writing help desk, offers scientists a chance to meet with someone who can help them create more effective figures, tables and graphs.

“In modern publications, up to half of the space can be taken up by figures,” said principal investigator Marco Rolandi, a UW assistant professor of materials science and engineering. His group studies materials at the nanometer scale, and much of the data is ultimately contained in microscope images.

“As a new faculty member, I was spending a lot of time teaching my students how to make figures for publications, even though I myself didn’t have any formal training,” Rolandi said.

It was a case of the blind leading the blind, he said. Rolandi sought out collaborators on campus, and eventually funding from the National Science Foundation, to create support that until now didn’t exist – and to study how well it works.

The research project (Design Help Desk) has two principal investigators, Rolandi and Karen Cheng, from Hickey’s Feb. 21, 2012 news release on the University of Washington website,

“We are becoming a more visual culture,” says Karen Cheng, a UW associate professor of design (who also completed a bachelor’s in chemical engineering). Still, most science visuals “could use significant improvement from a visual point of view,” she said. “It’s just not a field where design has been part of the training.”

This hasn’t always been the case. In Galileo’s time, scientists were also trained in art. These days, scientists often produce a graph using Microsoft Excel or PowerPoint’s default settings – which might look fine to them, but may have fundamental design problems. [emphasis mine]

Meanwhile, even journals are focusing on the importance of figures, often asking authors to improve them before publication.

“It’s not just about looking pretty. It’s about conveying complex information in a clear way,” Cheng said.

The point about science and art being more closely intertwined in the past was made Gunalan Nadarajan (Vice Provost at the Maryland Institute College of Art) at the AAAS 2012 annual meeting (my Feb. 20, 2012 posting). Nadarajan mentioned a new project being developed, Network for Science Engineering Art and Design. It’s so new they don’t yet have a website.

This is not being done in the wild. Scientists and designers are not set loose upon each other (from the UW news release),

Clients who arrive for a session at the Design Help Desk are first greeted by postdoctoral researcher Yeechi Chen, who earned her doctorate in physics at the UW and has completed a UW certificate course in natural science illustration. Chen can act as an intermediary between the scientist and the designer, and reassure new clients that scientists are involved in the project.

During the half-hour session, the scientist client and design consultant are alone in the room. The designer first asks the scientist about his or her goals – timeline, stage in the design process, publication venue, and main points to convey. The designers typically use pen and paper to sketch out their ideas.

The session is videotaped for use in the group’s study, if the client agrees. One camera records the face-to-face interaction, while a second camera on the ceiling records the sketching and hand movements.

Interestingly (to me anyway), the Design Help Desk appears on a UW webpage dedicated to Visual Communication in {Nano} Science. The page offers a very minimalist image, a description of the project and the team, and offers links to resources, e.g., A Brief Guide to Designing Effective Figures for the Scientific Paper ((behind a paywall)) which was published  in August 2011 in Advanced Materials.

Step closer to integrating electronics into the body

The Sept. 20, 2011 news item (Proton-based transistor could let machines communicate with living things) on Nanowerk features a rather interesting development,

Human devices, from light bulbs to iPods, send information using electrons. Human bodies and all other living things, on the other hand, send signals and perform work using ions or protons.

Materials scientists at the University of Washington have built a novel transistor that uses protons, creating a key piece for devices that can communicate directly with living things.

Here’s a diagram from the University of Washington Sept. 20, 2011 article about the proton transistor by Hannah Hickey,


On the left is a colored photo of the UW device overlaid on a graphic of the other components. On the right is a magnified image of the chitosan fibers. The white scale bar is 200 nanometers. (Marco Rolandi, UW)

Here’s a little more about the proton transistor (from the Hickey article),

In the body, protons activate “on” and “off” switches and are key players in biological energy transfer. Ions open and close channels in the cell membrane to pump things in and out of the cell. Animals including humans use ions to flex their muscles and transmit brain signals. A machine that was compatible with a living system in this way could, in the short term, monitor such processes. Someday it could generate proton currents to control certain functions directly.

A first step toward this type of control is a transistor that can send pulses of proton current. The prototype device is a field-effect transistor, a basic type of transistor that includes a gate, a drain and a source terminal for the current. The UW prototype is the first such device to use protons. It measures about 5 microns wide, roughly a twentieth the width of a human hair.

As for the device (from the Hickey article),

The device uses a modified form of the compound chitosan originally extracted from squid pen, a structure that survives from when squids had shells. The material is compatible with living things, is easily manufactured, and can be recycled from crab shells and squid pen discarded by the food industry.

There is a minor Canadian connection,

Computer models of charge transport developed by co-authors M.P. Anantram, a UW professor of electrical engineering, and Anita Fadavi Roudsari at Canada’s University of Waterloo, were a good match for the experimental results.

If I understand this correctly, the computer models were confirmed by the experimental  results, which means the computer models can be used (to augment the use of expensive experiments) with a fair degree of confidence.

I am finding this integration of electronics into the body both fascinating and disturbing as per my paper, Whose electric brain? More about that when I have more time.