Student Spotlight on Judy Rubin

Student Spotlight on Judy Rubin

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By: Sarah Peters

Spotlight: Judy Rubin, MSc Candidate in Biomedical Communications,
Institute of Medical Science, University of Toronto

Many Institute of Medical Science students may self-describe as ‘researchers’; some may identify as ‘scientists,’ while others prefer ‘academic.’ For students in the University of Toronto’s Biomedical Communications (BMC) program, these terms must all be appended with ‘artist.’ Judy Rubin recently completed her first year of BMC and sat down with me to explain her program, pursuits, and inspirations.

In a field as diverse as science, it is unsurprising that coherent abstracts and unambiguous presentations are necessary to project ideas and results across the multitude of medical disciplines. While Institute of Medical Science faculty and students most often wield Microsoft Office in the pursuit of clear communication, students in the Biomedical Communications department hone their digital fine art skills to convey research in aesthetically pleasing ways.

Judy Rubin is a student in BMC at the University of Toronto, one of four such programs in North America. Despite being the largest BMC program on the continent, it is home to only 16 students—according to Judy, this is due to the incredibly specialized skillset required of successful applicants. Students in the two-year Masters program take courses in both arts and sciences, including media design and neuroanatomy; additionally, students are exposed to several digital design packages, may be involved in medical procedure observerships, and eventually complete individual thesis projects.

Judy happily explained that she has always been keenly interested in both science and art. Growing up as the daughter of a science-oriented mother, she spent her childhood peering into microscopes and bringing her observations to life not with paper and pencil, but instead with cell stain pigment. This hobby grew into an association that has impacted her academic trajectory: “When you go to the lab, you get to do art.”

As a young adult, Judy spent several years pursuing her interests separately. She first attained a biology degree from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and later  underwent training at the Schuler School of Fine Arts. This metaphorical tug-of-war was primarily between the “intellectual satisfaction” of biology and the personal indulgence of illustration; when Judy learned about the biomedical communications field, it “perfectly matched [her] passions.”

Integrating science and art is a responsibility that Judy takes seriously as both student and educator. In her words, the goal of medical illustration is to transform information into visual formats that can be easily communicated to a wide audience.

“People assume that you have to be a really good artist. That’s true, but you also [need] to have really good design sense and focus on layout, composition, design, and data visualization.”

Judy’s insight may not come as a surprise, especially for those with experience designing their own research posters. Judy and her classmates likely have an advantage when it comes to this type of science communication, since they “come from a unique place where [they] can see information and integrate that into visual design.”

Biomedical communicators are integral to the way in which scientists and students teach, learn, and share. From textbook images to medical school lessons, the language of science is predominantly visual; this process of translating knowledge into art is quite familiar to students in BMC. Judy begins a typical project as any IMS student would: with research. The type and amount of research varies with the project and could include anything from observing a series of  surgical procedures to poring over anatomical details of the cerebellum. Next, artists begin their first drafts—Judy prefers to do this step by hand—and continue to refine images, eventually “cleaning up” the final product in a program like Adobe Illustrator.

Spending so many hours transcribing sulci and gyri from a picture prompts an inquiry that is all too familiar to Judy: “A question I get a lot of the time is, ‘Why can’t you just photograph it’?”

One of Judy’s main goals is to edit concepts into graphics that are more easily understood than, for example, untouched photographs. As technology continues to advance, she believes more tools will continue to emerge for this type of unique, human-modified communication; specifically, she is interested in interactivity and 3D modeling. These techniques may be particularly salient in coming years as tech companies roll out interactive virtual reality applications.

Although most IMS students will not go on to pursue BMC, it is beneficial to be mindful of the way in which biomedical communicators bridge knowledge as we continue to share our discoveries. Students may find inspiration in a particularly helpful diagram, or perhaps will take the initiative to learn a new digital application to create a figure. As Judy advises, “Don’t be scared to try. If you have a passion, don’t be scared to go for it and follow it!”