A day in the life of… a molecular animator

A day in the life of… a molecular animator

I originally started on a traditional academic career track, studying biology at the École Normale Supérieure de Cachan (now Paris-Saclay) in France, and later completing a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of Geneva, Switzerland. However – and despite great wet lab experiences – I never truly envisioned myself starting my own lab. I am now finishing a postdoc in the Animation Lab led by Janet Iwasa, at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, USA, and about to take a new position at the Dubochet Imaging Centre in Lausanne, Switzerland.

How I got here…

As I was reaching the end of my graduate school training and considered my next steps, I realized that creating figures had become what I enjoyed the most at work. I feel very lucky to have had two supportive supervisors – Robbie Loewith and Aurélien Roux who allowed me to explore the field of scientific illustration while I was still finishing my PhD in their labs.

 At the time, I was mostly creating figures for my lab mates and other colleagues in neighboring labs. The more I made, the more seriously I began to think about a career in scientific visualization, and to talk about this idea to those around me – I must say that it initially generated as much skepticism as enthusiasm. And one day at a scientific meeting, a researcher told me that if I really wanted to go in that direction I should reach out to Janet Iwasa, an academic molecular animator with whom they were collaborating. After a first contact, I set up to write and submit a couple of fellowship proposals to fund a postdoc in her newly started group. I was, however, not yet completely hooked on the idea of molecular animation specifically, and also applied to the Master's program in Biomedical Communications from the University of Toronto, Canada, which seemed to me a potentially broader entry door to the field of scientific visualization. As I ended up being awarded a long-term EMBO fellowship to work with Janet while also being accepted at the program in Toronto, I felt once more very fortunate that both sides were flexible enough to allow me to pursue both opportunities.

A typical day might see me…

There are never two exact similar days. We are always working on different projects in parallel, which are most of the time at a different stage of completion and thus require completely different tasks. These can range from meeting with collaborators to define a new project or get their feedback later on, to sketching storyboards, digging into molecular structures, sculpting additional elements in 3D, and animating our models sometimes by writing scripts, playing with colours and textures to add a final aesthetic touch... We need to manage our time on different scales (day, week, month) to make sure that we keep track of all the deadlines and make progress at the appropriate pace for each of the projects.

What feels really special to me about this work is…

Since my initial contact with Janet, I have had an epiphany moment regarding molecular animation. As soon as I tried the 3D animation software, it was as if something just clicked: it allowed me to follow my train of thoughts and connect diverse experimental datasets very naturally. The way that 3D animation software allows us to stage and describe numerous molecular players together, in far more detail than a written description, makes us literally see new ideas and mistakes in our thinking. I therefore believe that it is a powerful tool not only for communicating polished stories in a clear and engaging manner, but also for exploring hypotheses and mediating scientific discourse. It feels very nice to succeed in translating the mental hypothesis of a researcher into an animation, but what I actually enjoy even more is hearing that a draft has helped gain new insights or changed the way scientists envision a biological process even though it often means the animation has to be totally rebuilt!

mGlu2 activation (Janet IwasaVimeo). Animation created by Margot Riggi in collaboration with Yiorgo Skiniotis (Stanford), depicting the activation of a G protein by the metabotropic glutamate receptor mGlu2. Upon glutamate binding to both extracellular domains of mGlu2, the transmembrane domains undergo extensive rearrangement. This establishes an asymmetric interface promoting conformational changes in the cytoplasmic domain of one protomer, which represents a new mode of G-protein activation.

What else I love about this work…

One thing I particularly love about my work is that I get to hear collaborators tell me exciting science stories on a broad range of topics. There are no two projects that are alike, and I really love this diversity! I also enjoy solving the mental challenge that comes with almost every new project: how am I technically going to make the molecules behave the way my collaborator envisions to bring their hypothesis to life on the screen? Finally, I find it very rewarding to produce something concrete and hopefully useful for my collaborators.

My advice for others interested in a career in scientific visualization is…

The truth is, I don’t think there is only one path to this career. There are still only very few specialized academics in the field, and, as a result, the roads leading to these positions are even less straightforward, although it feels that there is overall growing interest. The majority of scientific visualization professionals outside academia hold a Master's degree from one of the accredited programs specialized in scientific visual communication (see www.ami.org), but it is a step that can be bypassed thanks to the numerous free tutorials that can be found online for virtually any software. Regarding 3D animation in particular, there is no better way to learn than downloading some software and trying it out! It is really a unique process and, from what I've witnessed, often results in a very strong love or hate relationship! In any case, it is crucial to build a strong portfolio and find ways to make your work visible to potential employers or collaborators.

As for other paths, networking, even ‘informal’ networking and just getting to know the people around you, is crucial: you never know where a collaboration or an opportunity can come from! I would certainly not be where I am today without the support of my network of friends, advisors and colleagues. However, and especially if you’re heading towards a 'non-standard' career, be ready not to always follow their opinion!

Science behind the scenes: how the first universal tool to image a physical force was born (Janet Iwasa, Vimeo). Animation by Margot Riggi. Research conducted by the NCCR Chemical biology, an instrument funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (FNSF) from 20102022.


Top image of post: screen capture from 'mGlu activation', Janet Iwasa on Vimeo.