Janet Iwasa is a data visualization expert and research assistant professor of biochemistry at the University of Utah, renowned for her contributions to molecular and cellular visualizations.


Early life and education

Janet Iwasa was born in 1978 in Bloomington, Indiana. When her father joined the National Institutes of Health, her family moved to Maryland.[4][5] Iwasa was the youngest child in the family, and she grew up determined to be different from her two older brothers. Her father's career in physics inspired her to become a scientist herself. In high school, she participated in a summer internship at the Institute for Genomic Research.[4]

In 1999, she graduated magna cum laude from Williams college with bachelor's degrees in Biology and Asian Studies.[6] In her junior year at Williams, she joined Professor Robert Savage's lab, studying the formation of segmented patterns in leeches on a cellular level.[7] In 2006, she received her PhD in cell biology from the University of California, San Francisco for her research on the actin cytoskeleton.

Iwasa became invested in microscopy during her first year at UCSF. In Dyche Mullins' lab, she studied actin networks in motile cells. During lab meetings with Ron Vale's group, she gained knowledge about kinesin structure and function. When she viewed a kinesin animation by Graham Johnson, she was inspired to pursue 3D animation. With Dyche's approval, Iwasa began taking animation classes at San Francisco State University.[4][8] After graduation, she studied animation at the Gnomon School for Visual Effects in Hollywood, California. She was the oldest student in her Gnomon animation course, as well as the only woman. She applied her skills in animation to biology, bringing cellular functions and interactions to life.[4]

Career and research

In 2006, Iwasa began working as a postdoctoral fellow under Jack Szostak with Harvard University and the Massachusetts General Hospital.[6][9] In 2007, Iwasa gained teaching experience at Harvard Medical School with a course named "Visualizing Molecular Processes with Maya." In this course, she worked as a teaching assistant, writing tutorials and supervising projects.[6] She also worked with another software platform at Harvard called Massive, adapting a program designed for video game animation to depict the process of nucleation elongation.[5]

In 2008, Iwasa created and presented a multimedia exhibit for the Boston Museum of Science titled Exploring Life's Origins.

In 2008, she became a lecturer in Molecular Visualization for the Department of Cell Biology at Harvard Medical School.[6] Her position at Harvard was modeled around her own research interests and her contributions to the scientists at the university. Her work with Joan Brugge and Michael Overholtzer furthered understanding of a newly discovered cellular process called endosis. Endosis involves the invasion of one cell into another, where the intruder proliferates inside the host cell until it is digested by the host or forcibly pushes its way back out. Iwasa's questions and requirements for the model forced researchers to investigate the endosis mechanism in greater detail to accurately engineer an animation of this process.[5]

While working with Tomas Kirchausen, she created an animation on clathrin-mediated endocytosis, researching how clathrin triskelions operated and assembled on the inner surface of the plasma membrane to invaginate an extracellular particle.[5][8] 

In 2010, Iwasa organized and taught a course on visualizing molecular and cellular processes with 3D animation in Porto, Portugal. In 2013, she joined the University of Utah School of Medicine as a research assistant professor for the Department of Cell Biology. She returned to Portugal in 2014 to teach a 3D animation workshop for scientific animation.[6] In 2014, she also completed a project called Molecular Flipbook, a free, open-source software program designed to animate molecules. In 2016, Iwasa released a life-cycle animation on HIV. Her project used animation to illustrate the molecular mechanisms the virus utilizes to enter into and exit target cells.[10][8]


In addition to her university work, Iwasa's renowned molecular and cellular visualizations have been featured in numerous scientific journals including Nature, Science, and Cell, as well as the New York Times.[11][12]

Iwasa's knowledge of cellular animation has also led her to publish several different works of scientific literature. Her work with Robert Savage's Lab led to her first publication in 2000 in Development Genes and Evolution, "The leech hunchback protein is expressed in the epithelium and CNS but not in the segmental precursor lineages", with co-authors Suver and Savage.[13] Iwasa's work with Savage focused on identifying regulatory genes engaged in the formation of segment patterns in annelids, investigating a gene in leeches called Leech Zinc Finger II (LZF2), considered to be an orthologue of the hunchback (hb) gene in Drosophila. Iwasa, Savage, and Suver concluded that LZF2 likely plays an important part in the morphological progressions of gastrulation and the specification of the central nervous system in leeches but does not contribute to the formation of anteroposterior patterns.[13]

In 2007, she published an article on her research at the University of California with Mullins, "Spatial and temporal relationships between actin-filament nucleation, capping, and disassembly."[14] Her study with Mullins focused on the lamellipodial network. They concluded that the lamellipodial network incorporates the Arp 2/3 complex and capping proteins during initial assembly, but dismisses these complexes long before the lamellipodial network is actually disassembled. They also reported that the network does not use cofilin, twinfilin, and tropomyosin in assembly. Instead these factors play a role in the network's size.[14]

In 2010, Iwasa published "Animating the model figure" in Trends Cell Biol.[15] In this article, she points out the importance of animations in revealing and teaching scientific concepts, explaining that students are shown to retain more information and show more interest in the material when animations are incorporated into the curriculum. She also pushed the invention of ananimation software engineered exclusively for the scientific research community.[15]

In 2015, she released her textbook, Karp's Cell and Molecular Biology: Concepts and Experiments, with co-authors Gerald Karp and Wallace Marshal.[16]

In 2016, Iwasa published "The Scientist as Illustrator" in Trends Immunol.[17] In this article, she elaborates on the roles of animation in science. She explains that animations help people to understand and process new ideas, communicate their theories and findings to their colleagues, and present information to the public in an engaging manner. She also explains that it is important for biologists to learn how to communicate visually so they can avoid borrowing old models to convey new concepts and ideas.[17]

Recognition and honors

From 1999 to 2004, Iwasa was honored as a member of the NSF Graduate Fellowship. From 2006 to 2008, she was a member of the NSF Discpery Corps Postgraduate Fellowship.[6] In 2008, she earned an honorable mention for her entry in the AAAS International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge. In 2012, she was listed as one of Fast Company's "100 Most Creative People."[6][18] In 2014, she was recognized as a TED Fellow, a FASEB BioArt Winner, and one of Foreign Policy Magazine's "100 Leading Global Thinkers."[6][19][20] In 2016, the University of Utah credited Iwasa as an Entrepreneurial Faculty Scholar. In 2017, she was honored as a TED Senior Fellow.[6]