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Molecular Flipbook

A free, open source 3D animation toolkit designed for and by scientists

by Evan Orensten
on 18 March 2014

Janet Iwasa isn't the average biochemistry researcher. Frustrated by inadequate drawings representing the work she and her fellow scientists were doing, she felt there was a better way. Though she had no background in art or animation, Iwasa saw the toolset as a means to better create more accurate renderings for scientists and lay people alike. The only drawback was the complexity of the software and the amount of time needed to become proficient with it.

Sensing an opportunity, the 2014 TED Fellow—along with a few colleagues—built the just-launched Molecular Flipbook. It seeks to fundamentally change the way biochemists can model their research and share their renderings, while also creating a library of shareable assets to help increase more speed and flexibility into the process. For example, one researcher may be working on an interaction between two proteins, while another may be working on something similar, but instead of having to start from scratch they may be able to add their third protein to the rendering of the existing pair. Iwasa says this more rapid prototyping of experiments or theories helps facilitate discussion around the researcher's hypotheses—and does it much faster.

Developed under a grant, the Molecular Flipbook is a free and open source platform for the scientific community. Built on the Blender platform (used to power video games), Molecular Flipbook features a much more accessible and simple user experience than most 3D software, specifically created for its target audience of scientists, not professional designers or renderers.

"Biologists think in movement. In a cell, everything is moving all the time, and everything is moving randomly. Things are colliding. Something will stick. That's how this all works," Iwasa explains. "When a biologist thinks of a hypothesis, it's always a moving hypothesis. Up until now, it's been difficult to capture that." Previously, researchers used entertainment industry software for such biovisualization mock-ups. With Molecular Flipbook, everything preprogrammed within is tailored to the needs of their specific user-base; molecular biologists. Completed animations are not only sharable, but can be downloaded and modified by anyone through Molecular Flipbook's website. This allows for expansive modification and exploration, not to mention experimentation.

Iwasa has run One Micron, an illustration hub of her animated works which feature both her research and that of other scientists for several years. "I am not from the art world, at all," she says. "I am a complete biologist. When I was in graduate school studying biology we studied a system of motor proteins. One of these proteins actually has two 'feet' and walks across the system," she says regarding her origins. "During meetings we would show stick figure drawings, thinking this is how it will move." When the head of her program hired an animator to create a 3D model, the animation made Iwasa realize she hadn't completely understood it before. "I thought, we can do this for all the things we see," she says. During graduate school, she took an animation course—all day, every Friday—animating what her lab did. Since, she has spent her time sharing the value in 3D visualizations.

She explains that Molecular Flipbook's importance is twofold: "The challenge is we need software that biologists can be doing experiments within, add something to their model, walk away from an animation for a month, or two months, find new data and come back to it intuitively." Further, "During the process of creating these animations, people were figuring things out further. Adding all that detail in made people realize they were missing things." Molecular Flipbook will contribute to the movement of taking animations from the world of educational tools and putting them in the hands of researchers. From there, accuracy will heighten and researchers will have further access at envisioning their hypothesis. And in the end, an entire industry will be bolstered.

Molecular Flipbook is now available for download online, free of charge.

Videos courtesy of Molecular Flipbook

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