Science & Tech

From overviews of landscapes to inner views of cells

6 min read

Felice Frankel creates images of an unseen world

The photographs are stunning abstracts that look as though they should be hung above a mantle or in a fine art gallery. But these aren’t primarily works of art; they are images of scientific phenomena. The images were made by Felice Frankel, a senior research fellow at Harvard University’s Initiative in Innovative Computing.

Frankel brings an artistic perspective to science, enabling the world to see the work with a fresh perspective. Even her fellow researchers gain new insights.

At Harvard, Frankel is moving her work into new areas, helping researchers to think more broadly about how they will illustrate their work and using art in the classroom to teach science.

Coming home to Harvard

The photographer came to the University in July 2006 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was a coming home of sorts for Frankel, who got her start in her current field as a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

She received the fellowship because of her landscape photography. But at Harvard, she renewed her interest in science. Before becoming photographer, she had been a researcher in biology.

During the fellowship, she took classes with eminent scholars such as E.O. Wilson and Stephen Jay Gould. But it was a course with chemistry professor George Whitesides that made the biggest difference. She produced a photograph for an article he submitted to Science. That picture ran on the cover and a new career was born.

Translating science

Frankel can translate science for those who don’t know much about it because she understands it. She speaks the language of the researchers.

“She asks these seemingly naïve questions, but of course they’re not naïve,” said Alyssa A. Goodman, Director of the Initiative in Innovative Computing and Professor of Astronomy at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Frankel said that initially she gets researchers to explain the central parts of the work, a process that can take weeks.

“Then I can edit down all the information to get what is necessary,” Frankel said.

Many researchers don’t know how to talk to the public. Though their work is important, it is sometimes beyond the grasp of those who don’t have a deep scientific background.

Bridging gaps

Frankel can help bridge that gap. Her images offer lay people a glimpse into a world they might not otherwise see. They spark questions and help viewers understand obscure concepts.

“It’s with visual language — such as pictures and graphics — that we can help people feel less intimidated,” she said. “It’s the visual language with which we’re all familiar that allows us to talk to each other about an image, point out parts that are interesting or beautiful, and ask questions without hesitation. That’s the bottom line for me: to make science accessible by revealing the beauty that’s already there.”

In asking questions for her photographs and looking for ways to take them, she can influence the work, as well.

“She regards the process that one goes through in producing an image to be helpful in planning the research,” Whitesides said.

It forces researchers to think in a new way, which can offer new insights and result in a tighter, more controlled experiment, he said.

In one case, she suggested using food coloring to highlight drops of water. The result was a stunning image that easily conveyed the research on how water adheres to different surfaces.

Frankel’s images have been published in Scientific American, Nature, and Newsweek, to name just a few.

She wrote, “Envisioning Science: The Design and Craft of the Science Image,” which is now out in paperback. She co-authored, with Whitesides, “On the Surface of Things: Images of the Extraordinary in Science.” They are working on another book, called “No Small Matter,” about nanoscience and quantum mechanics.

Frankel also writes a column, “Sightings,” for American Scientist magazine.

She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, and has received grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, and the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation. In 2005 she was named the Honorary Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication.

At Harvard, Frankel is part of the Initiative in Innovative Computing, a program that fosters the creative use of computational resources to address issues at the forefront of data-intensive science.

She is head of the Envisioning Science Program. The initiative includes “image and meaning workshops,” which are held around the country for researchers, designers, and writers. Researchers bring in their work and talk about how to best illustrate it.

Representing, not judging

“We’re not judging each other’s science; what we’re discussing is the way we’re representing the science,” Frankel said. “It doesn’t put you as a scientist out on a limb.”

Annual Reviews has commissioned Frankel, along with Angela DePace of Berkeley, to write a first-time guide, based partly on the workshops, on images for researchers.

“The idea is to encourage authors for annual reviews to think more about the graphics they submit,” she said.

The publisher understands the importance of graphics, Frankel said.

“We’re trying to raise the standards of how they think about their graphics,” Frankel said. “For the most part, researchers don’t pay enough attention to their graphics.’’

Into the classroom

Frankel is also expanding her work that focuses on using images in the classroom.

Students are asked to draw pictures of scientific concepts rather than relying on words. It helps them to better understand the concepts because they must look at them in a whole new way. The images can also help teachers evaluate how well students understand the material.

“We need to address this issue of do the students truly understand the basics?” she said. “We are finding that even though these are truly smart kids, they don’t get it.”

Beyond her images, she brings to Harvard an ability to bring together people from different disciplines, Whitesides said.

“She is somebody who does a very good job of wandering the halls and talking to people,” Whitesides said. “She does a good job of introducing people to one another.”

She has many good ideas, so many, in fact, that those around her have to push her to stay focused and delegate.

“She’s overflowing with good ideas,” Goodman said.