Images of Cells and Molecules for Biologists and Students
Maura C. Flannery, Division of Computer Science, Math and Science, College of Professional Studies
Because biology is the most visual of the sciences, biologists tend to take images for granted. Those of us who teach in the discipline are so familiar with phylogenetic trees, electron micrographs, and images of proteins, that we assume our students also see layers of meaning in such images. They often don’t. In my research on how students develop an understanding of visual representations in biology, I have found that it takes not only careful exploration of these images, but a grounding in visual literacy and in aesthetics. Students must learn to see the living world at different levels of organization at the same time they are learning biological concepts. Comprehending these concepts often means making sense of a variety of types of abstract diagrams. Yet despite the layers of meaning to be found in such images, biologists often use many of them in a presentation or class and assume that their audience understands the illustrations as they do. While this may—or may not—be true of an audience of colleagues, it is likely to be much less true of a student audience, particularly at the more elementary levels of instruction, even up to the early courses of graduate school.