I've been an admirer of Eleanor Lutz' infographics for a while now. But when I picked up the March issue of Wired last week at the airport, and saw an article about Lutz' most recent infographic in which she set paper sculptures of plant seeds on fire (for science communication), I just had to talk to her myself.
I'm intrigued with Lutz' creativity even more than her technical skills when it comes to making her infographics. From setting paper seeds on fire, to creating "baseball cards" for eye-catching virus structures, to animating a butterfly field guide, her genius in placing complex science into formats that we can instantly recognize and enjoy (with digital twists) inspires me. One of my favorites is her infographic on the wing movements of various flying creatures.
Eleanor is a graduate student at the University of Washington where she studies mosquito neuroscience (um, amazing!). When she isn't in the lab, she's creating beautiful infographics and writing about them on her blog Tabletop Whale, and doing many other amazing things. You can find her on Twitter @eleanor_lutz.
Me: Can you tell me a bit more about yourself and your scientific research?
Eleanor Lutz: I study Aedes aegypti mosquitoes - the species that transmits Dengue, Zika and yellow fever. I work in Jeff Riffell's chemical ecology lab, where one of the projects is broadly focused on how mosquitoes use their sense of smell to find food.
Right now I'm working on understanding scent-related behaviors in mosquito larvae. Larvae don't transmit disease, but knowing more about the mosquito brain during their entire life cycle might help us understand some important aspects of adult olfaction.
Me: What does a typical day look like for you? (And when do you find time to create your beautiful infographic projects?)
Eleanor Lutz: Right now I'm not taking classes or teaching, so most of my day is spent in the lab. I do a mix of running experiments, writing, and data analysis. I also spend a fair amount of time preparing for experiments, which includes things like raising genetically modified mosquitoes, building new equipment, and mixing different chemicals. I like to draw on the weekends and after work to relax, so that's when I work on infographic projects.
Me: In reading your highlight in Wired, I was intrigued by the range of formats your infographic projects have taken. For your latest, you crafted artificial paper seeds and set them on fire to communicate how various plants have relationships with fire!
How do you come up with the ideas for your infographics? And how do you decide the format that an infographic will take?
Eleanor Lutz: For me the most difficult part is knowing which ideas are worth pursuing, and which ones I understand well enough to explain to someone else. I keep a running list of all the silly ideas I think of, and occasionally look through the list to cross off ones that no longer seem interesting. I usually don't bother starting a project unless I've had a few months to consider the idea and still find it interesting.
When I decide on a theme for an infographic, I try to take into account the science as well as the technical limitations. Some science topics need a lot of color to illustrate all of the different sections, but others are fine in black and white. And as an example of a technical limitation, animated files are much larger than still images, so it's more feasible to break these down into discrete sections that can be saved as separate files.
I try to pick between digital and hand-made work depending on what I think would best fit the science concept I'm trying to explain. As for the steps I go through in creating an infographic, I first spend almost half of my time doing research to make sure my infographic idea is feasible and makes sense scientifically. This might involve e-mailing scientists to ask for article suggestions and fact checking, or reading journal articles and textbooks. After the research is complete, I'll have everything I need to finish the infographic, and I work on the design elements until they're finished.
Me: What is your best advice for other scientists interested in communicating science visually?
Eleanor Lutz: If you're a scientist in academia you probably have easy access to data visualization classes, and I would recommend taking or auditing a class. At my university we have data visualization courses in a lot of different departments, including Computer Science, Quantitative Science, Informatics, and Design.
Me: What skills have you found most invaluable to creating your science communication products for your blog? (From your fire infographic, you appear to also be amazing at photography!) How have you accumulated/developed these skills?
Eleanor Lutz: I've been using Photoshop for 11 years, and it's definitely my go-to program for personal projects. But I think the important part is being comfortable with the program, not the exact choice of software itself. I'm actually not a good photographer, so for my fire infographic I had to do a lot of post-processing in Photoshop to fix photography issues like uneven lighting and overexposure.
Me: How can folks collaborate with you?
I usually email scientists myself for my own projects, but there are so many great science ideas that I don't know anything about. I would love to hear from you at email@example.com if you're a scientist with an idea for an infographic.
Which of Lutz' infographics is your favorite?!