According to the WHO, Streptococcus pneumoniae (also known as pneumococcus) is the fourth most frequent microbial cause of fatal infection. These bacteria commonly colonize the upper respiratory tract and are the most common cause of bacterial pneumonia and meningitis. Although much is known about pneumococcal biology and the diseases it causes, there are still many questions about the molecular biology and cellular processes of the bacterium.
To further explore pneumococcus at a microscopic level, former PhD student Ditte Høyer Engholm uses an unconventional method – watercolour – to visualise this troublesome bacterium. We caught up with Ditte recently, who kindly shared with us the process and motives behind these scientific illustrations.
Why did you choose to use the pathogen Streptococcus pneumoniae?
If you, like I, have ever watched one of your kids shake with febrile convulsion while their eyes take on a faraway look due to a sudden case of pneumonia, you’d agree that nobody should ever have to experience this. I was once home alone with my two small kids, when my oldest suddenly woke up soaked in sweat and started shaking. Luckily the doctors at the emergency room quickly diagnosed her with bacterial pneumonia and prescribed her antibiotics, which killed the bacteria.
Pneumonia is rather common in kids and the bacterial kind is mostly caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae, also known as the pneumococcus. According to the World Health Organization, more than one million kids under the age of five die from pneumonia each year and it is believed that simple precautions including appropriate use of antibiotics and increased hygiene can prevent most cases. Although most of these cases happen in developing countries, you shouldn’t think that pneumococcal infections aren’t dangerous in the western world. One of my supervisors, who was happy, healthy, and unknowingly living without a spleen suffered from a very severe pneumococcal infection which was almost fatal. If my PhD project can help increase awareness of precautions and treatments I’d be very happy – also if my illustrations can help communicate some of the fantastic pneumococcal research in a new way.
Why do you think these kinds of visual representations are important?
Scientists are now increasingly becoming aware of the advantage of communicating research in untraditional ways. When I started my project in 2015, I didn’t know anything about the pneumococcus. It was a treasure hunt for knowledge in a vast sea of information. All the little important pieces of information I found, I used to create a coherent whole visualization of the bacterium. The data generated in laboratories all over the world provide important information about the biological functions or implication of the pneumococcus. However, I found it very difficult to comprehend all of this when I was all new in the field. I hope that my visualisations will help others by providing a visual entrance for learning more about the pneumococcus, stimulate them to ask questions to the experts within the field. Much of the information that I used to create the visualisations is not available in a format like this and I hope that it might even inspire experts to ask new questions too.
How did you get started with these illustrations?
The illustration style that I’ve used is not something I’ve come up with. I’ve learnt from the master himself – David Goodsell. David is well-known for his illustrations of cellular landscapes and his work at the RCSB Protein Data Bank, and he’s been a wonderful mentor. My supervisor invited him to come visit us in Aarhus, and I did my first watercolour painting (ever) under his supervision in April 2015. As a PhD student, I was really lucky to have a whole team of supervisors and helpers with diverse backgrounds ranging from molecular biology, crystallography, science visualization, and pneumococcal biology. In addition to this, I’ve asked many different experts about all sorts of stuff that I needed to discuss to complete my illustrations. Everybody that I’ve talked to has been very interested in sharing their knowledge and guiding me in the right direction. So, after my first introduction to watercolour paintings from David, I simply dug through the literature and tried to understand the bacterium enough to be able to draw it.
How long does it take you to create these images, and what is the process behind them?
I spent two years making the pneumococcal visualizations. Most of this time was spent reading the literature and collecting information. I’d say that this treasure hunt was 80% of that time if it includes generating and drawing models for the illustrated proteins. When all the information was gathered, I wrote short reviews that I tried to illustrate in a step-by-step manner. When the narrative in the review was in place, all the proteins drawn and I had selected the colour-scheme, each of the paintings was fairly quick. I used about one day to draw the composition of the foreground of a small painting, and three days for one of the two big ones. The painting itself took two days for the small ones and a week for the big ones including the manual outlining of all components. The digital illustration took me a month to create and then a couple of weeks for the video. We have a method article in the pipeline that should be able to clearly outline how the visualizations were created.
Do you have plans for how to use your combined artistic skills and microbial knowledge in the future?
No, not at the moment but I’d be happy to get suggestions! I’m considering applying for funding for a postdoc in research-based science communication. I really liked the challenge of trying to understand something completely new and finding ways to communicate it to peers but also a broader audience. In addition to my paintings and the digital illustration, I’ve also worked with cartoons and they’ve received very positive feedback from a broader audience whenever I’ve had a chance to show them. At the moment, everything is rather open for me job-wise, but I’d definitely like to stay connected to the natural sciences somehow.
If I were to do a similar project again, I think an ideal set-up would be to have an even closer interaction with the experimental scientists. If it was possible, I’d prefer to have weekly or bi-weekly meetings with a board of scientists to discuss questions and the way that the visualizations were progressing. I believe that this would also be both useful and interesting for the involved scientists.
Featured image credit: Painting by WerbeFabrik. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.