Neuroscientist who uses art to communicate science

By Dr. Leslee lazar

Published on August 21, 2017

What does neuroscience have to do with graphic designing? Stereotype holds that scientists and designers are vastly different thinkers. A neuroscientist and graphic designer Dr Leslee Lazar, who teaches at IIT, Gandhinagar, is bridging art and science to create visual representations of scientific knowledge. Dr Lazar is creating visual representations that are  often too technical and abstract for common person to understand. In an interview with Health Analytics India, Dr. Lazar spoke about his career, science graphic designing and how data visualisation can change how we process scientific information.

Q1: To begin with, please tell us a little bit about yourself in terms of your educational background and what attracted you towards neuroscience and visual communication? Was it something you have always wanted to pursue?

I went to Loyola College, Chennai for a bachelor’s degree and a master’s at University of Madras, both in Zoology.My choice to pursue neuroscience was fortuitous, but I was always interested in studying behaviour and evolution and there was so much buzz around brain research that I decided to do research in it. I did my PhD in Neuroscience from National Brain Research Centre and did a short post-doc stint at Harvard Medical School, Boston. Visual communication came very late. After my post doc, I realized I enjoy graphic design and so I combined my interests.

Q2:  What attracted you towards science graphic designing?

I do not know why, but I was always interested in the arts and design. I was always designing T shirts, posters album cover art etc, just for fun. Then when a friend asked me to make illustrations for her science blog, I got hooked. Also, may be because graphic design is more accessible and practical. You just open your computer, start doodling and deliver practical solutions; posters, websites, books. Not that I do not like art or design for its own sake. I do that too.

Q3: There is a trend these days of increased use of data visualisations tools in Science and other subjects as well. Could you share with us how data visualisation can change how we process scientific information, and also what do you think accounts for this shift?

The reason we have new ways to visualize data is that we are generating huge volumes of data that is hard to make sense of with traditional ways. Visualizations can help us get an intuitive feel for the data is saying and make inferences. Also, our attention span has been reduced thanks to the information overload and social media. So, all communications are now designed to be brief and catchy. And visuals are the best way to capture our fickle attention.

The flipside is that we are driven by a fanatic belief that data will give us meaningful information. But it depends on the data. As scientists, we are trained to design experiments and then only collect relevant data. But now, we are analysing data because it is there. There are data scientists mining millions of tweets about a consumer brand.

Q4: When it comes to scientific information, scientists have mostly taken the conventional road. Lengthy research papers and books have had precedence as a way of disseminating information. How do you think infographics as a means of communicating information will change how we look at doing science?

I do not think infographics can replace lengthy papers and books. I think we should not fall prey to the trend of communicating in brief. Scientific journals are still rigorous about the way data is represented and it should remain that way. But public dissemination of science can be more adventurous with their visual narrative methods like infographics.

Q5: Healthcare industry has been riding high on the data analytics revolution, although more so abroad than in India, how do you see role of data visualisation in the field of healthcare and in the field of neurosciences?

The reason is the diversity of stakeholders. The healthcare and biopharma industry caters to scientists, clinicians, managers, patients, marketers, PR professionals, etc, so the information must be accessible to all. I would look at neuroscience as a subset of the healthcare industry. There is a need to simplify complex medical and scientific information to all stakeholders. I feel that there is a great demand for innovative scientific narratives and representations there.

Q6:   Statistical information to some appears abstract, for people who mostly do not deal with numbers. About this translation of abstract information into the physical form of graphs with bars and various colours, as a neuroscientist would you say there is a need to follow certain principles in designing that are derived from an understanding of human perception?

Mainly studies show that people’s perception and decision making is influenced by elements of visualization. But, one doesn’t have to be a neuroscientist to make good graphs. There are many bad representations out there that distort the information especially in infographics intentionally or unintentionally, which can be avoided by following some basic guidelines in any entry level statistics course.

Q7: Your website has an eclectic collection of visual art and products.  How does the rational scientist and the imaginative artist in you converse with each other?

[Smiles]  I would argue that the dichotomy is false one, which our educational system perpetuates this. I feel that there is a great overlap between the demands of both professions and I enjoy doing both.

- As told to Shazia Salam