UNCON 2020 Review
Last November 2020, on the weekend of the 28th-29th, BMCAA held its annual Unofficial Conference (UNCON). UNCON is a chance for the BMC community to share insights and experiences in science communication, and bring together fantastic speakers from all over the world. This year, in particular, we were able to invite and welcome speakers and attendees from more places than we’ve otherwise been able to, since the conference was completely virtual.
Coming together in a new way was a distinct joy - bright and early (at least for those of us in EST) on the first day, attendees sounded off in the chat, announcing where they were tuning in from and saying hi to friends and colleagues. Throughout the whole conference, the chat was alive with conversation, comments, questions and appreciation. Other years, UNCON has been a one-day affair, with conversation and mingling primarily at mealtimes and during breaks. It can be intimidating to speak during the post-talk question and answer period, and there is (of course) usually no way to interact during in-person presentations. Not to mention that attendees usually have to be able to get to downtown Toronto! This year’s conference really opened up accessibility, and many commented that it allowed for a really special event that reflected the international nature of our industry.
The conference kicked off on Saturday with a talk from Dr. Gaël McGill and Dr. Jonathan Khao. Dr. Gaël McGill is a faculty member and Director of Molecular Visualization at Harvard Medical School and founder of Digizyme, a firm dedicated to the visualization and communication of science. He is also the creator of the Clarafi portal and Molecular Maya software. Dr. Jonathan Khao is an animator and programmer at Digizyme. Jonathan develops tools to model and simulate molecular environments and is the lead developer of Molecular Maya. Dr. Gaël McGill and Dr. Jonathan Khao walked viewers through the challenges and breakthroughs of visualizing SARS CoV-2 membrane fusion, and how Molecular Maya is uniquely suited to the challenge. Their discussion involved incredible animations, and fascinating discussions of how visualization works in tandem with the scientific process of determining how and why these structures work the way they do.
Shiz Aoki was the lead science illustrator at National Geographic for 8 years before becoming the co-founder and CEO of Biorender. While her talk last year discussed more of the origins and ideas around Biorender, this year Shiz discussed the transferable skills of medical communicators and alternate possible careers. Shiz shed light on unique skills shared by medical communicators, how to find out what you’re interested in, and what adjacent industries and paths you might explore.
The first of the conference’s panels focused on perspectives on medical illustration outside of Canada. Speakers included Erina He, Pina Kingman, Ryan Kissinger and Andrew Q. Tran. Erina He has a background in Neuroscience and Physiology, and after working as a research associate in a biotech company she completed her BMC degree. She currently works in DC as a medical illustrator for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Pina Kingman is currently based in Bergen, Norway, and specializes in 2D & 3D biomedical animation, particularly on topics that deal with cellular and molecular biology. Ryan Kissinger currently works for the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana. Previously, he worked at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and as a freelance illustrator and animator, creating work for several publications. Andrew Q. Tran started as a biotech and pharma researcher after his undergrad, then transitioned into digital product design after BMC. He has a huge range of experience with different products and companies, and is currently at Facebook Pay, working on challenges of financial equity, access, and creating healthy behavioral changes. The panel provided a great look at the pros and cons of working outside of Canada, hinting at the international differences in healthcare industries and nature of medical communication work.
Dr. Kamran Khan closed the first day as the conference’s first keynote speaker. Dr. Khan is a practicing infectious disease physician and a Professor of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Toronto. After his experience as a frontline healthcare worker during the 2003 SARS outbreak, he began studying outbreaks of emerging infectious diseases. In 2013, this culminated in the founding of BlueDot, a digital health company that collects data using several techniques, and synthesizes the information in order to help predict, prepare and build resilience to global epidemic threats. Dr. Khan walked viewers through the creation and tools of BlueDot, and the overarching goals of their research. The question and answer period dove into issues around healthcare, the power and responsibilities of government and companies, and what this means moving forward in a world where outbreaks are likely to be more frequent.
The second day of the conference began with second keynote speaker Dr. Jeroen Claus, a scientist-turned animator and founder of London-based medical animation studio Phospho. Dr. Claus showed some incredible work from Phospho, and talked about the studio’s journey from Maya to Houdini. Houdini has a bit of a reputation for being intimidating - but Dr. Claus walked viewers through a tutorial to show the logic and elegance of Houdini’s capabilities, and the ways in which it makes life incredibly easy for the medical animator.
Andrea Kim spoke next, on the technical performance and clinical evaluation challenges of medical extended reality tools. Andrea Kim is a Staff Fellow at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with a focus on Medical Extended Reality (MXR) regulatory research. Her current research interests at the FDA include the development and design of benchmark testing and performance characterization of MXR devices and applications. She discussed the software and hardware limitations of display technology and development platforms, outlining the feedback loop our brain and sensory system has with our eyes and perceptual abilities. Her research draws on an extremely intricate understanding of physiological responses, user experience and technological limitations.
Paul Kelly is a Certified Medical Illustrator (CMI) who is currently a Senior Biomedical Communications specialist at the Toronto Video Atlas of Surgery (TVASurg), where he has worked for the past 8 years. He is experienced in many specialities across the 3 production pipeline. His talk reviewed the ways he has found to track his own work process and the time tasks take. He shared a wealth of information about how he has used these insights to rethink time management and client communication.
The final discussion was a panel on freelancing in medical illustration. Qingyang Chen is the founder of QCVisuals, a biomedical illustration studio established in 2013. She has been a medical illustrator for over 7 years, and has created projects in a wide range of medical communication services (data visualization, advertising, patient education, research publication, graphic design and animation). Sarah Crawley is a freelance animator and illustrator who works primarily in developing visuals for research publications and patient education. She studied Art History and History before coming to the BMC program. She has created materials for Bridgepoint Active Healthcare, research publications, and magazines. Avesta Rastan is a freelance scientific animator and illustrator. She worked as a Creative Innovation Associate at INVIVO Communications before transitioning to freelance. Her freelance career got started shortly after publishing her COVID-19 infographic that was shared by the World Economic Forum and published in Discover Magazine. She now works primarily with researchers in academia, medtech start-ups, and various agencies. Judy Rubin is a highly prolific, client-facing medical illustrator with strong project management experience across a portfolio of projects. She’s an award winning creator of media and materials for scientific publication, marketing & advertising, sales training, physician education, and legal and forensic use. The panel touched on loads of freelance issues, such as social media, marketing, finding clients and how to manage taxes. These discussions were specific to the challenges faced by freelance medical illustrators, and opened up great topics of conversation and knowledge sharing.
The BMCAA Executive Team Elections and General Assembly were on day 2 of UNCON. Julia Devorak and Roxanne Ziman will be our new Co-Presidents. Lesia Szyca will join as the new Treasurer, and Janell Lin as the new Secretary. Alex Young will be the new Head Viewbook Editor, with Jenny Bai, Shirley Long and Nitai Steinberg joining as Viewbook Editors. There will be two first-year representatives, Mimi Guo and Naomi Robson. The new Webmaster is Maurita Hung. Mona Li will continue as the Social Media Manager and Avesta Rastan as the Outreach Coordinator. What an incredible team! Welcome all, and thank you for taking on the amazing work of running the alumni organization, and providing such a strong resource for future, current and former BMC students.
We are still looking for an Events Coordinator and News Editor, so please do reach out if interested! Being on the team is an amazing chance to connect with the BMC community and professionals in our industry, and make a difference in how our community comes together to support one another. If interested, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Did you miss UNCON? No worries! You can find livestream recordings of all talks that had permission to be shared publicly post-conference here on the BMCAA Exec YouTube channel.
Thank you to all of our sponsors, speakers, attendees, and members of the BMCAA Executive Team for an incredible conference. This year has been such a challenge, and the fact that we were still able to all come together - and in ways we weren’t able to before - was such a lovely way to close the year. We hope you are all safe and well, and we look forward to seeing you at our next event. As always, you can find event updates via our Events Page or mailing list (sign up if you haven’t already). Hope we see you soon!