The Yale Science Diplomats at Yale University have been using our S.P.A.R.K. online course to help train their members for the “Flipped Science Fair.” At the Flipped Science Fair, Yale researchers present their work to middle schoolers who both learn from the experience and get to judge the researchers posters. In this blog post, Yale researcher Vimig Socrates shares his experiences with the S.P.A.R.K. course and shows how he’s already putting our 5 strategies for the visual communication of science into action for the Flipped Science Fair.

Using the S.P.A.R.K. strategies to create a picture focused on clinical informatics for middle school students

A few weeks ago, I facilitated and participated in a science communication course run by Picture as Portal LLC called S.P.A.R.K., 5 strategies for the visual communication of science. In my group, I had 3 other graduate students from various disciplines. We were all looking to develop a picture that would help us better explain our work to a broader audience, whether they are middle school students, legislators, or members of an adjacent scientific community. Personally, I wanted to explain my current research project at a high level to middle school students. 

I’m a PhD student in informatics, studying clinical informatics. This is engineer-speak for “I use data that is recorded on regular visits to the doctor to try and help healthcare workers do their jobs a little bit better and hopefully make us all a little healthier.” There is so much data in the clinical sphere that we can accomplish this goal in many different ways. The S.P.A.R.K. course instructors encourage you to pick a research project that you work on and to use a description of that project as the foundation for a picture you’ll create during the course.I picked a project wherein I created a mathematical representation of a patient’s full clinical record that we could use for a variety of tasks. These include finding similar patients for clinical trials and guiding treatment through predicted treatment outcomes. 

The first strategy covered in the course was “Serve a Sandwich,” the “S” in S.P.A.R.K.  Using this strategy, I attempted to condense my research project into three main components. While I have certainly done similar things to make my science more explainable, the course helped me break down my project with a unique exercise: the “visual menu” exercise. In this exercise, we wrote out descriptions of our research projects and underlined the “actors” and “actions” in the descriptions.  We then quickly drew images to represent these actors and actions. These images made up our “visual menus.” During the remainder of the course, we used these images to construct a picture describing our research.

Vimig’s visual menu

In the second strategy from the course, Plan a Path (the “P” in S.P.A.R.K.), we took the images from our visual menus and attempted to place them in some sort of logical flow. We predominantly used arrows to relate different “menu items”. 

I would say this was the most useful part of the S.P.A.R.K. framework. I’ve heard (since I don’t have an artistic bone in my body) that artists often deal with “Blank canvas syndrome”. That is, a completely blank canvas can be very imposing and it’s hard to get a creative project started from scratch. However, if you’ve got building blocks to start off with, it can be easier to get a creative project moving. In science communication, this problem is no less prevalent. I’m so used to writing long, technical scientific journal articles that when presented with a slightly artistic goal, I struggled quite a bit. Breaking down my science into the requisite components and connecting them together helped develop a very natural flow chart. This process led me to the following intermediate picture.

Path picture

The next three strategies involved refining this picture by taking into account the intended audience and distilling the information presented into its most important components.  Through a few more iterations, I came up with a modified and cleaned up version of the picture. 

Refined picture

It’s pretty clear to see that there were considerable changes between the first iteration and this version crafted after using the “Access Your Audience” (A) and “Refine Relationships” strategies in S.P.A.R.K. . 

In conversations during the workshop, I realized that my work is actually more circular than I initially thought. We extract information from the patient record, combine it using some mathematical concepts, and use a number of analytical techniques (represented by the graphs in the picture above)  to develop a mathematical representation of the patient (man in red). However, the key difference between my “path picture” and my “refined picture” is that, in the refined picture, the mathematical representation informs better clinical care and we repeat the whole data collection and modeling process.  This circular process continuously makes our mathematical representations and clinical care better.

Finally, the last strategy from the course is “Keep it Clear” (The “K” in S.P.A.R.K.). Following this strategy, we refined our use of color and text. My semi-final picture resulting from this strategy is found below. I have some final modifications to make, but I really like how things are advancing!

Semifinal picture

You can see that labels have been added, the points in the graphs have been made larger and clearer, and we changed one of our icons to signify that the mathematical representation is actually a framework we use to train machine learning models, not a real life person that is created. While these icons could be a bit neater and not hand-drawn, I’m relatively happy with the final outcome. You can clearly see the message has evolved and become clearer from my first Visual Menu to the final output. Overall, I enjoyed the S.P.A.R.K. methodology immensely. The S.P.A.R.K.  strategies make it easy to create a picture that is informative for a broad audience.

Read other “Case study” blog posts to see the S.P.A.R.K. strategies in action.

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