Life in Motion: Dr. Janet Iwasa and the Animation Lab

Art by Ellie Gabriel.

Open your biology textbook to any page, and chances are that you’ll find a diagram embedded alongside the concept that is being explained. Textbook authors have long since realized how useful diagrams can be to communicate key information and aid understanding, but few understand the usefulness of visual aids in biology as well as Dr. Janet Iwasa does.

A professor at the University of Utah, Iwasa works at the forefront of molecular and cellular animation, a niche of biology that she has pioneered and devoted her career to. A virtuoso at communicating cutting-edge research of other scientists through animations of her own, Iwasa has expanded the domain of her widely acclaimed work by running her own research lab. Working on projects involving visualizations of the origin of life, HIV, and recently, COVID-19, “The Animation Lab” has been inundated with requests from researchers to bring to life their ideas on the workings of life itself.

Janet Iwasa describes her work as simply another method to probe biology. “Some people use microscopes; I use animation software,” Iwasa said. Her modest statement doesn’t quite capture the gripping power of her work; not only are her animations much more visually alluring than your standard biological schematic, but they have been designed to communicate nuanced and intricate theoretical models effectively and intuitively to experts in academia.

“The way you learn about molecular biology is that it’s complex, there’s all this stuff going on, and it’s dynamic,” Iwasa explained. “But then the way people visualize it is really kind of disappointing.” Her animations, on the other hand, encapsulate a sentiment worth many more than just a thousand words. “A lot of it is just about capturing that kind of excitement that wouldn’t necessarily come out using scientific jargon or figures with arrows and circles,” Iwasa remarked.

Her specialization in a niche discipline was the result of an extraordinary academic journey— becoming a cellular animator is hardly a career on high schoolers’ radar; indeed, not even in Iwasa’s case. Her first foray into the domain that is now her life’s work came well into her graduate schooling, while chugging along the railroad from college to graduate school to post-doctoral work to professorship.

“A lot of people go through a bit of a slump in [graduate] school where things just aren’t going well, and your research isn’t going well, and you look around and you [think] ‘What am I doing here?’” Iwasa said. Fortunately, her rejuvenation came in the form of a chance encounter. The lab next door studied kinesin, a protein responsible for movement within the cell, and they hired an animator to model the protein based on their research. After seeing the animation they produced, Iwasa became engrossed by the potential of animation in research. With support from her lab, she began taking strides into the field of animation and computer science, and by the time she completed her PhD, her mind was set on the unconventional path of biological animation.

Barring the sheer complexity of her 3-D animations, Iwasa’s journey to cement herself as an established leader in the niche of cellular animation was not without roadblocks. In graduate school, she realized that she had finally stumbled upon her intellectual passion, but she also realized that she had no footsteps to follow—no mentor to look up to. “The hardest part was trying to carve a bit of a niche within academia and research, doing something that’s really not considered typical,” Iwasa said.

In taking a risk to alter her career path into one rife with uncertainty, she was met with doubt and disapproval from friends and colleagues who did not share her confidence. Her temperament sealed the deal—something that she terms her “blinder mentality.” Iwasa added, “I’ve definitely encountered a lot of [negative] attitudes in science, especially being outside of the norm.” Rather than being daunted by the doubt from those who did not support her, she instead chose to listen to the encouragement from those who did. “You just pivot, and pick and choose what advice you listen to and incorporate into your plans.”

Her staunch belief in the untapped potential of cellular animation was not without justification. Working as a biological animator among the research faculty at the University of Utah, project requests started coming from all angles. She was helping scientists portray their work, and they came to appreciate the significance of hers. “When we create an animation, it can be the first time a researcher who’s been studying a process for decades has actually seen it come to life,” Iwasa said. Noting one instance in particular: “He was nearly in tears. ‘This is exactly how I envisioned it,’ he said. ‘I was never able to show people what this really looks like.’”

Eventually, Iwasa realized that she alone would not be able to meet the demand for projects, and so set about creating “The Animation Lab.” With her lab, Iwasa also had another objective in mind. “The idea of having a community, even if I had to build it myself, sounded pretty good,” Iwasa said. She is giving her postdoctoral fellows training opportunities that she did not have herself, and many of them are interested in forming groups of their own at other institutions, sowing the seed for a future tight-knit network of biological animators.

Iwasa is highly optimistic about the future of animation in biological research, citing significant growth in the field over the last decade. Her goals for animation are clear and compelling. “More researchers need to be able to create visualizations easily—the democratization of animation and illustration,” Iwasa said. In particular, she is excited by the prospect of collaborating to populate a virtual cell, accurately and comprehensively portraying the highly complex and fundamental unit of life with various models of its constituent parts.

With hardly any others to look up to in crafting her academic journey, Janet Iwasa has since carved out a discipline in the rapidly growing field of biological animation. She is an embodiment of persevering through an untraditional career path; as she says, “the career of your dreams is not necessarily in the most obvious place.”