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Participants in the S.P.A.R.K. course do amazing work. They show that, no matter your level of artistic talent, you can apply the S.P.A.R.K. principles to create useful and informative visuals. 

In our “case studies” blog posts you’ll find examples of pictures created following the S.P.A.R.K. principles. These will come both from the course instructors and participants. If you’d like to have your work featured in a “case study” please reach out to Enjoy!

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Circular RNAs by Gloria Fuentes

Illustration of circular RNAs from Gloria Fuentes

Gloria Fuentes, a researcher turned scientific illustrator at The Visual Thinker LLP (, applied the S.P.A.R.K. principles in this picture depicting the cellular production and uses of “circular RNAs” (the red and green circles in the pictures). Gloria kindly provided us with these 3 versions of her picture to remind us that creating a useful picture is an iterative process. 

The earliest version of the picture (left) was created by the researcher who worked with Gloria on this project. This simple starting point helped give Gloria a general idea of the appropriate layout. Additional written notes filled out the actors and actions to be depicted in the final picture (the visual menu). 

Gloria then moved on to the second version portrayed in the center image, but decided that her representations of the circular RNAs were too complicated. Thus, Gloria moved on to the final version on the right. Here, Gloria removed some of the realistic but distracting complexity from her circular RNAs. Gloria also made extensive use of enclosure to group aspects of circular RNA biology together. Finally, she made effective use of alignment to keep everything organized and easy to follow. Great work Gloria!

Gloria’s work was the product of a collaboration between herself and researchers at the Genome Institute in Singapore.

Cancer Imaging by Michael McCarthy

Picture portraying the process of creating tumor slices from a biopsy

Michael McCarthy, a freelance medical writer in Seattle, applied S.P.A.R.K. principles in this illustration of a cancer imaging technique. In his picture, Michael adapted a more complicated illustration from a journal article for a press release. 

His illustration shows how researchers slice up tumor biopsies in order to study tumor cell behavior upon exposure to different drugs. He used the S.P.A.R.K. audience sweet spot locator to determine that, for a general audience, the illustration should be very easy to understand. Therefore, although tumors are complicated masses of cells, he kept his representations simple. He also made use of a linear path to demonstrate the biopsy preparation process. Thus it’s easy to see how, in this process, researchers take cores from biopsies and then cut them into thin slices. These slices are easy to image under the microscope. Great job Michael!

Michael’s work was featured in “Local Health Guide” a blog about health news for the Pacific Northwest.

Enzyme transport to the lysosome by Betsy Palay (S.P.A.R.K. course instructor)

Complex and simplified schematics of the lysosome

In this case study from S.P.A.R.K. instructor, Betsy Palay, we have a preliminary (left) and refined (right) picture portraying enzyme transport to the lysosome. The lysosome is a cellular compartment that degrades many biological compounds. Enzymes within this compartment carry out the hard work of degradation. After being synthesized, these enzymes must travel to the lysosome. These two pictures illustrate the various routes lysosomal enzymes can take.

While both pictures display essentially the same information, the left picture is more cluttered and complex. To make things easier to understand, the curvy, jumbled compartments featured in the left picture are aligned and given more consistent shapes in the right picture. The paths to the lysosome are also simplified in picture on the right. 

While an actual cell might take on more the chaotic appearance found in the picture on the left, it’s much easier to grasp the pattern of movement and activity in the picture on the right. The picture on the left was a great start and included all of the necessary components (the visual menu), but might be difficult for a non-expert to understand. Thus, the refined picture on the right is a more useful learning tool and helps viewers grasp the content at a glance.

You can find more examples of pictures created by the S.P.A.R.K. course instructors on the Picture as Portal Instagram account.


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