Illustrating the invisible: Seniw provides new service through ANTEC
Mark Seniw fell into a career as a scientific illustrator by happenstance, but that isn’t to say he wasn’t prepared for the role.
He grew up interested in technical drawings and enjoyed retouching family photos and creating illustrations using computer software in his free time. And, as part of his self-described “jack-of-all-trades” and IT role in Northwestern University’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE), he videotaped many of the department’s scientific lectures, thesis defenses and talks from visiting professors. In this capacity, he was exposed to a range of scientific concepts and took note of how much easier presentations were to follow when they included high-quality visuals.
“Everyone is telling a story, even if they’re doing science and research,” Seniw said. “It needs a beginning, a middle and an end, and some strong art can help carry you through and communicate that story well — especially with something complicated or something new.”
Seniw got his first opportunity to assist in that process in 2000 when Professor Samuel Stupp, a recent addition to the MSE department, asked if he could help create a figure for an upcoming presentation. As an IT professional in the department, Seniw had set up Stupp’s computer software, so Stupp correctly assumed he had the technical know-how to produce the figure.
These requests became more frequent and six months later, Seniw was funded to make scientific illustrations one day per week. He has since extended his skills to many scientists over the past two decades, producing thousands of 2D and 3D illustrations for research articles and presentations, journal cover submissions, grant proposals, news releases and websites. In January 2021, he took on this role full-time when SQI’s Analytical bioNanotechnology Equipment Core (ANTEC) launched its Scientific Illustration service, which is available to the entire Northwestern research community.
Seniw’s latest highlight is producing the cover art for the October 2022 issue of Advanced Biology, the 13th journal cover he has landed since 2011. The illustration (pictured at right) depicts one approach to treating ulcerative colitis described in a review coauthored by SQI member Arun Sharma — that is, the delivery of biocompatible anti-inflammatory nanofibers. Seniw’s image shows peptide amphiphile (PA) nanofibers weaving through an ulcerated intestine.
“We envisioned a cover illustration that would be aesthetically pleasing but also immediately impactful to the scientific community, thus the direct physical contact of the PAs on intestinal tissue represented in the image,” said Sharma, who has worked with Seniw on several projects. “Mark has the foresight and vision to meld scientific messages that I wish to convey in a meaningful artistic manner that is provocative to the eye. Being visual creatures, this is pivotal and serves as an invitation to peruse the article to learn about the science behind the art.”
Seniw said he requests as much technical information as possible when creating a figure for a manuscript, proposal or presentation. But when it comes to cover art, he can take more creative liberties because he knows the decision-makers at the journals are not looking for a literal depiction of the results; they simply want something visually striking that is inspired by the research.
Take, for example, Seniw’s favorite cover: the August 2017 issue of Nature Nanotechnology (pictured at right). In conversations with Stupp — who collaborated on the work with SQI members Erin Hsu, Wellington Hsu and Stuart Stock — Seniw learned that the research described a novel peptide for bone regeneration that incorporated an epitope from the sugar family.
“When he told me that, I almost immediately thought, ‘Well, I want to do a sugar-coated spine,’” said Seniw, whose final product looked more like a candy shop item than something you would typically find in a scientific journal. “I didn’t tell Sam what I was going to do because he might not have gone for it, but that’s the one I did and it was accepted as the cover.”
Seniw has also produced cover art for SQI members Monica Olvera de la Cruz and C. Shad Thaxton, who have used Seniw’s graphics in published manuscripts, poster presentations and PowerPoint slides as well. In addition to producing still images in 2D and 3D, Seniw creates video animations to convey dynamic scientific concepts — including several clips used in a Northwestern video and by many TV stations in recent coverage of a new spinal cord injury therapy being developed at SQI.
“Overall, Mark has transformed our more crude and less visually appealing graphics into professional ones that are scientifically accurate and visually engaging,” Thaxton said. “My lab focuses on synthesizing novel nanomaterials and then applying the materials to biological systems to understand their function. Many times, the materials are complex, and Mark's graphics make it much easier for folks to conceptualize the materials, make comparisons and understand how the materials interact with biological systems.”
In working with scientists at the cutting edge of nanotechnology, Seniw is tasked with illustrating concepts or materials that are brand new and invisible to the naked eye. It’s a challenge he embraces.
“It all comes back to telling a story. What are you trying to communicate through this illustration and what can I do to make it effective?” he said. “My job is to illustrate things that you can’t see.”
Three of Seniw’s illustrations from published manuscripts. From left to right: a synthetic high-density lipoprotein (HDL) nanoparticle; a hybrid polymer with removable supramolecular compartments; and a schematic depicting the major forces present in a large blood vessel.