Biology visualization workshop videos now online

Leah Eisenstadt, July 29th, 2011 | Filed under
  • Image courtesy of polylemonade/

This spring, artists, designers, computational biologists, and software engineers gathered in the Broad Institute auditorium for three days of talks, posters, and tutorials on the cutting-edge field of visualization in biology. The second Workshop on Visualizing Biological Data, or VIZBI, was a great success and conference organizers, including creative director Bang Wong of the Broad, are planning to convene annually through 2016, alternating the location between here and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany. If you weren’t able to attend VIZBI 2011 (or you were there and want to revisit this incredible content), see videos of the talks online.

The workshop featured talks on visualization of data at all levels of biological study, starting at the genome and working through transcripts, proteins and complexes, cellular systems, and organisms up to the population and evolutionary scale. Keynote talks focused on visual complexity (Manuel Lima from Microsoft), visualization principles (Tamara Munzner from the University of British Columbia), outreach (Drew Berry from Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Australia), and design (Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viégas from Google).

Conference chair Seán o’Donoghue, then at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Germany, explained the genesis of VIZBI in his opening remarks, emphasizing the need to not only create and use visualization tools, but to integrate different kinds of tools together. He and his colleagues realized that “tools that visualize data aren’t going to start talking to each other until the people who make those tools start talking to each other,” he said. “And there is no natural forum for that currently, and so that’s what we set as our raison d’être for VIZBI.”

Broad director Eric Lander set the context for VIZBI 2011 with his opening remarks, highlighting the power of visualization tools and their creators in today’s research climate. The tools have important functions, making it “quick and easy to connect things up.” He also emphasized the role of metaphor in visualization. “Metaphor is so powerful in science,” he said. “The visual scientist is going to invent metaphors over the next five years that are going to be powerful organizing tools for science going forward.”

But the tools have another quality that lends power: beauty. “Things that are beautiful have a huge communicative power as compared to things that aren’t,” Lander said. “So visualization will combine this functionality, this metaphor, and this beauty in a wonderfully creative domain that is going to be part of our science from the get-go. It is going to be transforming.” He quipped, “If pictures are only worth a thousand words, we’re [doomed].”

Exploring the role of beauty in biological visualization, Bang Wong along with Daniel Kohn, Broad’s resident artist, organized the first “VIZBI Art & Biology Evening” during this year’s workshop, which began with a public keynote talk by the 2010 MacArthur Fellow winner Drew Berry on “Communicating Biology Visually.”

Wong was pleased with the growth of the workshop, but he hopes to see more biologists in attendance in the future. “I’d love to see them frame their research problems in the context of visualization to the diverse VIZBI audience,” he said. “People from different professional backgrounds will look at the same problem from different vantage points.” He’d like to see more intersections among people who think about visual representation in any form, so they can generate ideas on how to represent data that might lead to new insights.

Wong also wants to steer the talks at future meetings beyond the state of the art. “It’s natural that we would have more ‘review’-level talks in the first couple of years,” he says, “but we need to delve deeper by highlighting researchers whose ongoing, active research in visualization is impacting science.”

For more, watch videos of the VIZBI 2011 talks online.

Read more about the tools and research presented at VIZBI 2010 in this Nature Methods supplement on Visualizing Biological Data.