VOLUME 31 / NUMBER 3 / 2005 

Viewpoint: Master of All Trades, Doctor of None


Camillia Matuk

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 technology-specific question.

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.
Email: camillia.matuk@gmail.com

Copyright 2005, The Journal of Biocommunication, All Rights Reserved

Table of Contents for VOLUME 31, NUMBER 3