|The role of an interdisciplinarian is a hazy one. As
medical illustrators, we immerse ourselves in the science of our subject
matter, and emerge as experts on the topic at hand; but we are not
real scientists asking original questions about life's workings. Instead,
we communicate the findings of others. We practice the mastery of
our media and have an eye for beauty and design; but we are not true
fine artists. Our agendas are neither purely social nor aesthetic.
Often, our visions are reigned in, molded by our clients' needs and
tastes and directed by the requirements of practical purpose. At heart,
most of us are artists dabbling in science, or else scientists secreting
art studios in our basements. Above all else, we are craftspeople,
and medical illustration is a functional art.
For most graduates of North America’s several professional
Master’s degree programs in Biomedical Communications, there
awaits an office job or perhaps a freelance business; having already
attained the highest formal qualification available, growth for
these graduates is now only lateral. Despite ample room for development
within their field and of the skills learned at school, success
in Biocommunications ultimately caters (and appeals) not only to
the artistic and scientific dabblers, but especially to the business-savvy.
To those of us seeking to further unify more gritty research and
artistic endeavors, successful business-types may say "Tough
luck - if you're not satisfied with the rules, don't play the game."
In JBC 31(1), Manuel Bekier questioned the place of Biomedical Communications
amid the general public's growing technical abilities and urged
us to redefine our roles as communicators (Bekier 2005). I believe
he is justified in bringing this to our attention. Not only is medical
art a functional art, but it is also one very much reliant on the
technology it harnesses. As technology becomes more publicly accessible,
the competency of the public at handling it also grows. Therefore,
a craft like Biocommunications that does not stay ahead of the rest
of the world is doomed to be swallowed by it.
There are, however, great things happening in the field of Biocommunications.
You need only to read the news to discover that the University of
Calgary is producing walk-through holographic models of the human
heart, or browse the AMI home site to find a plethora of presenters
speaking at the 2005 AMI conference on topics as diverse as the
crafting of prosthetics and revolutionary techniques for animating
complex cell processes. These examples alone should be enough to
convince the world that our trade is alive and thriving.
But closer inspection reveals that the academic histories of many
of these stellar communicators boast degrees and experience in the
computer and hard sciences, along with engineering and technical
prowess far beyond the scope of our professional Master's degree.
They have devoted a significant portion of their lives developing
these skills, and visualization is almost a hobby in comparison.
For the rest of us, solutions such as keeping our skills sharp and
ourselves in-the-know through continuing education courses, seminars
and conferences are a few options, though short-term ones, that
keep us forever chasing the cutting edge. In reality, we are neither
experts in science, nor art, nor even technology. Admittedly, no
one wanting a serious answer would approach us with a medical- or
Rather, what makes our role as interdisciplinarians crucial is
our ability to coordinate vastly different fields, and to be the
link between them in order that specific goals may be achieved for
communicating with the public. This specialty is less focused on
technology, which is but our current chosen medium of communication
(previously, it could have been argued to have had a more traditional
art base), and more on the basis of visual communication itself
- principles of design and information presentation with educational
purposes. To truly specialize in our field, we must strive beyond
purely technical methods and equipment, experts in which are becoming
a dime a dozen. We must focus more on how we can best use our media
to create educational biomedical visuals. Technology, after all,
is only as effective as the hands that use it, and only as powerful
as the minds that wield it.
Creative fields that thrive have similar hierarchies of qualified
participants: some produce, some direct production, some guide the
creative idea, and some commission the product. But in most of these
professions, there are then those deemed experts in their fields,
who theorize and analyze, who judge how best to produce something,
and most importantly, why and how it affects us. These are the philosophers,
the thinkers and the research scientists.
Consider this: an Art student may continue on to doctoral studies
in analytical aspects in his/her field; a Science student may advance
to complete Ph.D. work on experimental or theoretical questions
in a particular discipline; a Ph.D. candidate in Computer Science
may spend time inventing new technologies and software to advance
and contribute to his/her field. Sadly, scientific visualization
has few examples of such truly focused experts.
Now consider a Ph.D. in Biocommunications: candidates could further
their work beyond a solely text-support function, challenge the
visions of their fellow trades people, and enlighten clients on
the possibilities of purely visual communication. Researchers in
Biocommunications could be inventing new visual languages, researching
visual literacy in science education, and constructing tools to
revolutionize the practice of science and extend the capabilities
of traditional research methods. Most crucially, their findings
could be backed with solid data acquired by vigorous study, research
and analysis. As it is now, such endeavors mandate partnerships
with colleagues more specialized in the technical and scientific
backdrops of these creative environments. While partnerships will
always be relevant and necessary, a doctorate in Biocommunications
could lead to a generation of independent biomedical visualization
professionals; a generation that grounds the profession in authority
and academic prestige, and that achieves the ultimate in interdisciplinarianism.
With so many possibilities for advancement in the field of Biocommunications,
it is unfortunate that there are so few opportunities for research
after attaiment of this professional degree, and so few institutions
providing avenues and guidance to nurture the ambitions and aspirations
of Biocommunications professionals. Those who wish it may find a
place in a Faculty of Education, where many universities, especially
in the United States, cater to research in instructional technology
and design. But to actually match the technical achievements of
an engineer or a computer scientist, or to truly use art as a tool
for scientific discovery, requires many of us to further our education
at an undergraduate level. In effect, we must step backward in order
to step forward.
Fortunately, more and more, universities are offering collaborative
and interdisciplinary programs for just such displaced individuals;
and I hope this leads toward Biocommunications becoming a recognized
academic course of study on a doctoral level. Dr. Linda Wilson-Pauwels,
University of Toronto's director of Biomedical Communications, has
gone a step further by cultivating the idea of a professional Ph.D.
in Biomedical Communications (Wilson-Pauwels 2005). No doubt, others
have had such ideas and either disregarded them as passing fancies,
or had them crowded into forgetfulness by the cushioned years spent
plugging along at familiar office work.
In the meantime, both industry and universities may scramble for
funding, promote the newest technologies, and hire more specialized
and permanent staff. But the chase for money and technology is endless.
Technology will continue to advance and the public will evolve with
it. In reality, we limit ourselves and our potential for progress
when we limit what we can achieve in our education. By not focusing
our skills intellectually and beyond simple practicality, by failing
to transcend the boundaries of our capabilities, and by ignoring
deeper exploration of the extents of our discipline, we leave ourselves
vulnerable to obsolescence; and what then is left to set us apart
from the numerous other technology-literati?
Bekier, M. 2005. The Changing Face of Biomedical Communications.
Journal of Biocommunication 31(1): Viewpoint.
Wilson-Pauwels, L. 2005. BMC Expands: Just what is going on at
BMC? BMCAA Alumni News 17(1): 7.
About the author
Camillia Matuk holds a Master of Science in Biomedical Communications
from the University of Toronto. Currently, she is a Medical Illustrator
at InViVo Communications, Inc., in Toronto.