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Biological Sciences Division
Research Highlights

March 2017

Revolutionizing Science Communications: The Spirit of Poster 76

Jason McDermott poster
Poster 76, presented by PNNL's Jason McDermott. Enlarge Image.

History may someday remember Poster 76, a cartoon rendering of a Big Data curriculum for graduate students at the 2017 Joint Summits [CQ] on Translational Science in San Francisco.

If so, let history note that the gathering, sponsored every year by the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA), included among its 70-plus posters No. 76 - a '76-like call for liberty in the way science is communicated. It was tacked up without fanfare on March 27, then officially presented on the evening of March 28 by its creator, PNNL senior research scientist Jason McDermott. The occasion was a conference session on Big Data education, and the origin was a chance meeting in January.

"I'll bet you could do a whole poster with comic stuff," a conference official told McDermott. The two had been talking about McDermott's avocation for the past few years: rendering science principles, challenges, and insights into cartoons that go out as illustrated tweets, onto Facebook, and onto a Tumblr blog. Look for the Twitter handle @redpenblackpen for - among other things - a history of how the conference poster was written and drawn.

Jason McDermott
Jason McDermott

Tweets from the handle in the past years have included wry looks at the business of science. McDermott, for one, sketched a drawing to frame his science "Serenity Prayer":

Grant me the serenity to write
what I can write,
The courage to delete
what needs to be deleted,
And the wisdom to dump the
rest on my

Science with a Smile

For the AMIA poster, the cartoon is novel and compelling, but the content is precise and serious. The freehand cartoon is the story of Big Data Land, where a pavilion (collaboration), a Ferris wheel (the scientific method), a robot (machine learning), a roller coaster (statistics), and other attractions are used to outline a course on how to deal with increasingly huge data sets confronting the biological sciences.

"I know the conditions and the issues and the elements" of Big Data education, said McDermott, a Reed College graduate who earned his Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology at Oregon Health Sciences University. The 11-year PNNL veteran turned to bioinformatics, he said, "because I'm steeped in it."

Among other pursuits at the Lab, McDermott is part of a project with co-principal investigators Karin Rodland and Richard D. Smith to gather and analyze proteomics and phosphoproteomics data related about 200 tumor types. The PNNL inquiry is part of the Clinical Proteomic Tumor Analysis Consortium (CPTAC). In complicated ways that is related to The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA), a multi-center collaboration to map genomic changes in 33 types of cancer.

So far CPTAC has 6.97 terabytes of data available for downloading on the proteomic characterization of tumors. TCGA has made more than two petabytes available.

Numbers much smaller than that - in the range of 100 gigabytes of data - can be daunting in the biomedical sciences, said McDermott, because of the size and complexity of the data sets "and a lot of relationships that may not be known - confounders." One hundred GB of data is roughly equivalent to the number of bytes stored in 100 movies.

The Imperative of Teaching Big Data

Ever-bigger datasets may hold the key to functionality at the level of molecules in blood, tissues, tumors, and - most complex of all - soils. So McDermott's science cartoon, and his call to action to improve Big Data education, is timely.

"It is clear it will get a lot of attention," he said of the poster, which he put up on Monday, the first day of the conference, and which has attracted a steady stream of visitors. "People like it a lot. Every time I look over I see people standing around it."

McDermott will be in front of the poster to discuss the work (and its medium) the evening of March 28 - for an hour - and then again on the 29th in the late afternoon, just hours before he boards a plane for home.

The poster has Barnum-style banner boxes on the chief points of his message: where Big Data comes from (including large scale consortia); ethical considerations (patient privacy is a special concern in medical bioinformatics, he said); foundations (collaboration, for one); computational challenges (including workflows and version control); five points on hacking education (the last is "catchy comics-based posters"); and - as with any science poster - summaries and conclusions. One is "hacking the educational system to create new modes of curriculum design, delivery, and sharing."

Messaging Via New Modes

Those "new modes," in the broader world of science and its conferences, may one day include more posters and presentations that look like cartoons, said McDermott - a medium that is perfectly fit to convey science compellingly and accurately. Two years ago, the ICES Journal of Marine Science published a summary of a workshop as a series of cartoon-like panels. So there is precedent.

Meanwhile, McDermott and two colleagues from the UK and from New Jersey just finished the first draft of a 10-point cartoon tutorial on how to create a science comic. It will go into a peer-reviewed journal. And by invitation from an editor recently, McDermott was asked to submit one of his existing cartoons to the Journal of Vascular and Interventional Radiology.

For the future, he has an even bolder plan, a "next big challenge," said McDermott: to write a grant proposal, start to finish, in the form of a graphic novel.

He is already a fan of @IamSciArt, a Twitter feed that features a different scientist-artist every week. A recent tweet expressed a sentiment contributors universally hold: "Leonardo da Vinci and Hildegard von Bingen fused science and art. Separating (them) is an unfortunate modern phenomenon."

Most science posters have a "slight inclination towards obscurity," said McDermott. "It's a culture." At the same time, few scientists have the sense of purpose, or the time, or the willingness to put in the effort that creating a novel poster requires, he said, which goes along with "a pretty wide variety of artistic sensibilities in the sciences."

At one end of that sensibility spectrum is a small core of believers ready to be liberated from old design forms, especially in the realm of science posters.

At the other end are researchers confounded at why science is not better understood when they present it publically. "I'm doing good science," said McDermott, taking on the voice of one, "and everybody should care."

This is "a scientist's lament," he said, and the cure might involve breaking the old rules.

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