The Living Cell
I vividly recall first seeing David Goodsell's work about 12
years ago during my first visit to the Scripps Research
Institute, where he is a research scientist. There it was,
screaming at me through the art and illustrations surrounding me
in his office—an "aha!" moment, a revelation
that, in fact, we'd been doing it all wrong! Could our
depictions of the cell have been (albeit unintentionally)
deceptive and dishonest? Textbooks, magazines and journal
articles had been failing to tell the whole truth in their
depictions of cellular structure; more important, they were
sending out wrong visual messages in the form of edited-down
diagrams that failed to communicate the cell's complexity.
Perhaps if we were shown David's drawings as children, we would
now have an easier time thinking about complex systems.
F. F. I wonder if you remember the first time you
looked at a typical textbook drawing of cellular structure and
became aware that the illustration was not giving the
"real" story, specifically about how packed cells
D. G. There is one illustration from a book that
comes to mind. It is from John Pfeiffer's book The Cell,
published as part of the Time-Life science series back in 1964. I
read this book over and over, and there is one beautiful cutaway
picture of a cell, beautifully airbrushed in bright colors. Ever
since then, this has been the picture I carry in my mind of what a
cell looks like. It wasn't until graduate school, when I was working
on molecular structures myself, that I saw the disconnect between
this beautiful, smooth image and the reality of the cell.
F. F. Do you remember thinking at the time that you
might, at some point, get involved with the visual representation of
molecular biology, or did that come later?
D. G. My grandfather started me painting when I was
in elementary school, but I only started calculating pictures of
molecules in graduate school at UCLA. The crystallography labs had a
new Evans & Sutherland Multi-Picture System, which created
pictures composed of vivid colored lines and dots, so I got to work
and wrote some programs to display DNA structures. Ever since then,
molecular illustration has been a big part of all of my work.
F. F. Some of your representations seem to emulate
a particular style first introduced by Art Olson and Mike Pique
at Scripps. I am referring to a look that uses smooth
molecular surfaces rendered with a shiny surface, like a plastic
model. Yours have a more "hand-drawn" illustrative style
and perhaps are more accessible to the public than the computer
graphic versions. Would you say that your collaboration with those
who work with computer graphics in molecular biology is a strong one?
D. G. Yes, I did postdoctoral research with Art
Olson in the Molecular Graphics Laboratory, and we still work
closely on a wide range of molecular graphics projects. He and Mike
have used advanced rendering techniques for years to create these
hyper-realistic images of molecular models. I gradually moved to my
own current style, which uses outlines and flat colors, when I
started doing these cellular pictures. I wanted a style that blurred
the line between my molecular images, created with computer graphics
directly from experimental atomic structures, and my cellular
illustrations, which I paint or draw by hand. In this work, I like
to allow viewers the ability to view a molecular structure and then
find it in a cell, easily moving back and forth between the two
F. F. Do you consider your work art or science?
D. G. When I approach a new picture, I am not
thinking of it as Art. My goal is to create an illustration of what
we might see if we could enlarge the cell, and that goal is best
described as scientific illustration rather than fine art. I am
getting more chances these days, however, to approach this subject
with an artistic goal, and I'm looking forward to seeing where that
takes the work.