25. Feb. 2022

PhD student Lukas Sukenik dreamed about creating cover page like scientific image for his first first-author publication and decided to learn how to use Blender. This free open-source 3D creation suite can be used for modelling, rigging, animation, simulation, rendering, compositing and motion tracking and is commonly used for animation tricks in Hollywood movies. He started with watching online tutorials on YouTube and playing with several scientific images to test the newly acquired skills. It took him almost 1000 hours of practice until he was able to master the software and produce breath taking images as we know from cover pages of famous science journals. Now he can design a cover page quality scientific image within eight hours. His latest design ended up on the cover page of the ACS Nano.

Read the interview with Lukas Sukenik to find out about his research and learn from him how to design captivating scientific images of cover-page quality!

Lukas, can you tell us something about your research? What is your research focus? (Please, mention which research group you are in, what year of your PhD, what is your research topic, mention also the social relevance of your research topic)

I'm a 7th year PhD student in Robert Vacha Research Group. The focus of my research is the study of virus genome release using computational modelling. Understanding the hows and whys of genome release will allow us to design molecules that would prevent it, effectively creating a new anti-virotics. Alternatively, it would allow us to design molecules that would induce genome release outside of cell, where it's not harmful. It would also contribute toward elucidating principles of viral capsid design. Allowing us to design and create artificial capsids with programmed functions. These loaded with medicine instead of harmful viral genome would improve today's drugs. Lowering the necessary dosage, suppressing side effects and enhancing their life-saving properties. We are not even talking about the far future. Natural viral capsids are already in use in viral vector vaccines such as Astra-Zeneca, Johnson/Janssen and Sputnik.

Why did you decide to enter career in science?

I didn't really have any strong motivation when I was deciding what to do after getting my Master's degree. Being rather risk aversive, I took the offer Robert gave me: a position with competitive salary working on the same things I did before. It was a low risk/medium reward kind of decision.
What was your first motivation to learn how to design attractive scientific images?
Years ago, I entered the biophysical competition held every year by Karel Kubicek, and got to present my research work to a wider audience. I did poorly. The winning presentation was less focused on the research, it rather tried to engage the audience with entertaining visuals. It led me to a realization that science is not just about the content, the form of science is presented is equally important, if not more. Luckily, my research is very visually appealing, providing me with fascinating models of the systems. This allowed me to skip several barriers when learning rendering in photorealistic quality using blender.

Can you share with us, how did you design the image that ended up on the ACS Nano? 

I started with selecting a snapshot I like from the molecular dynamics’ trajectory using program vmd. Then, I had written some code that would overlay actual atomic structure of a virus over my simplified model. It is possible to do it by hand, but it is time consuming. I decided to use only two light sources for the scene. One warm yellowish in the top right corner and one bluish in the bottom left corner. This creates nice highlights and shadows on the virus surface and gives our minds enough contextual clues to reconstruct a 3D object just from a 2D image.
Then, I opted for a colour scheme called triadic. The background was blue to evoke water. The capsid is dominated by red to suggest danger and the genome by green to have a sickly nature. The three colours (Red, Green, Blue) are contrasting with each other, visually separating each element from one another. Additionally, I added some background elements and arranged them using composition rules. Giving the image additional depth with the background microtubules disappearing in the fog. 
Then, I employed a technique suggesting elements outside of camera view by casting shadows on the two other viruses and light rays visible in the fog and in reflections from the microtubules. Finally, I unfocused the background to separate it from the central virus. Once the image is rendered, colour grading in lightroom is necessary to finish it off.
The steps of the processed are outlined in this video.

Besides the image that landed on the ACS Nano cover page, Lukas Sukenik created also a captivating video of the entire genome release process. 

Knowledge sharing is one of the core values of CEITEC MU. Would you be willing to share your knowledge with other PhD students in a practical workshop that would help them to develop their own graphic design skills? 

Sure thing!


We would like to thank Lukas Sukenik for this interview and for his willingness to share his unique skill set with other researchers! 

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