For more than two decades, photographer Felice Frankel has worked as a research scientist at MIT’s Center for Materials Science and Engineering. Her scientist colleagues—at MIT and at other institutions—call on her to create photographs that visually describe their work to audiences both inside and outside the scientific community. When researchers are preparing to publish their findings, for instance, they’ll approach Frankel to make images that are both descriptive and interesting to look at, which might land them the cover of a journal or magazine, or lead to a news feature.
Frankel’s macro image of a fabric that is modeled on the structure of sea otter fur, for instance, landed on the cover of Popular Science last year. Her images have also been on the covers of the scientific journals Nature and Nature Materials this year. Despite the fact that many people read articles digitally, covers remain important, especially for young researchers who are seeking tenure, Frankel says. Mainstream news journalists are also more likely to write about a discovery if it’s on the cover of a science publication. The Popular Science cover story, for instance, which was about the work of MIT mechanical engineer Alice Nasto and her team to improve wetsuit technology, led to coverage in several other media outlets, from Smithsonian to Fox News.
Frankel first discovered how useful photography could be in explaining scientists’ work while collaborating with chemist George W. Whitesides. The two met when Frankel was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. She sat in on Whitesides’ molecular biology courses, then volunteered to make images for a paper he was publishing in Science. They got the cover, and Whitesides encouraged her to keep photographing science subjects. They went on to work together on, among other projects, the book No Small Matter: Science on the Nanoscale. The book explained, through images and text, advances in the fields of nano- and microtechnology. Whitesides has said, according to Frankel, that by pushing him for better, more photogenic samples of his work, Frankel was “actually asking [Whitesides and his colleagues] to refine the science, and that the process of making more photographical work got them thinking further about the science,” Frankel recalls. She’s built her career around similar collaborations with a number of scientists at MIT and elsewhere. “The best part is when I push the questions to them,” she adds. “In order to develop better pictures, they have to think about their work differently.”
Recently Frankel has worked with scientists to create digital composite images that explain a scientific idea or concept that isn’t photogenic, such as her image for an article about rodent and non-human primate immune system responses to implanted biomaterials, which ran on the cover of Nature Materials earlier this year. That image was developed through conversations with scientists about how to “communicate the science” behind their research. “We try to figure out what should that picture be, because I’m basically starting from scratch when I’m developing a metaphor,” Frankel explains. Those conversations about the image-making process “get the scientist to once again think deeper about what the science is.”
Frankel has made improving the visual literacy of the science community a major part of her work. She won a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a program with science and design students and faculty to create drawings that teach science. Though the outcomes were drawings not photography, the project still made clear that visualizing science contributes to understanding. “The very nature of making an image in order to communicate the science is a learning tool,” Frankel says. “We could see, for example [the students’] misconceptions [when they drew] something incorrectly.”
She also developed an online course meant to teach students, faculty and researchers how to photograph science subjects. Making Science and Engineering Pictures, A Practical Guide to Presenting Your Work debuted in 2015 on MIT’s open education platform, and Frankel is currently working on Picturing Science and Engineering, a book based on the course that’s due out from MIT Press next year.
She says she’s frustrated that there isn’t a program “that teaches researchers how to develop better approaches to imaging their work. They learn on their own and they are lacking in very basic knowledge of the camera,” she says. Frankel believes it’s important to “raise the standards of what a good [science] picture should be,” and the technical science imaging courses at some schools aren’t enough. “It’s more than [technical imaging],” she says. Science images also have to be engaging to scientists and general audiences alike. “There’s an esthetic component that I think needs to be part of this conversation.”