The Eyes Have It

Wednesday, December 6, 2023
by Leda Zimmerman

It’s hard to look away from one of Felice C. Frankel’s images. For decades, Frankel, a research scientist in the MIT Department of Chemical engineering, has produced dazzling and witty art to tease and intrigue readers of the world’s most prestigious science journals. There is, for instance, the cover of PNAS featuring an illustration of paper wads floating casually atop a limpid surface, compelling even casual browsers to locate the article, “Lubrication with crumpled graphene balls.” And how about the distressingly long spoon full of sugars representing “Glycemic correction without immunosuppression” in Nature Medicine?

But while she may be best known for her published art — work that has been displayed in museums around the world — Frankel has spent decades as a teacher, training young researchers and established faculty to be effective visual storytellers. As part of that enterprise, she has just published “The Visual Elements: Photography” (University of Chicago Press, 2023), the first in a series of handbooks that collect and curate her methods of communicating research through images.

This compact, 225-page primer highlights four devices Frankel has learned to exploit, in often ingenious ways: the scanner, phone, camera, and microscope. Her chapters break down the strengths and limitations of each of these tools, drawing on her experiences creating images with scientific collaborators.

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