Post-Defense Interview: Molly Huttner

A research project or thesis exploring a question related to the field of biomedical visualization is one aspect of completing a Masters in Biomedical Visualization here at UIC. This original investigation enables greater insight into scholarship, understanding of the research process, and emphasizes original and critical thinking. Graduate students complete a written proposal, final research or thesis paper, give a final oral presentation and defense which all enable a student to develop advanced communication skills. This year, we are sitting down with our graduate students after their final defense for a quick chat about them and their research. This past week, Molly Huttner defended her project research: “The design and development of an audiovisual tool to provide biogenic explanation of depression as an effective supplement to mental health outreach campaigns”


Huttner_DefenseInterviewPhoto copyTaking a page from, how would you describe your research in one sentence?

Molly: I made an animation about depression that could actually make you more depressed if you don’t watch it till the very end.

How did you choose your research topic?

I have a background in working with depression as a resident assistant from undergrad and became very involved in helping the students I was responsible for. After having so much training and experience, I didn’t want to just let go of it when I came to graduate school. So I chose to focus my research on mental health outreach.

What can mental health campaigns do to improve their outreach?

A huge strength in any campaign is to reach a large population. Something we do as biomedical communicators and artists is create visuals that have the potential to have a viral popularity. There are a lot of campaigns that are doing this already with pop culture references and visuals, but they aren’t employing biology as a part of their campaign because science is scary, no one knows how to incorporate it, and there is no (at least with depression) consensus on what the actual cause of depression is. So we only have theories–which, again, people are afraid to work with. However, I feel that we could actually empower audiences with the knowledge that ‘researchers are researching’, this is an active search and some definite ground has been made in the effort. Additionally, and probably most importantly, explaining that our mental health is biologically based and that biology is malleable should be the core of any science branch in a mental health campaign.  

What motivates you or your work?

Whenever I started to lose steam, my research advisor Dr. Evelyn Maizels, has reminded me how important our research is. She has been my motivator, inspiration, and teacher throughout this whole project. I truly couldn’t have done any of this without our weekly meetings, emails, phone-calls and texts. I was very lucky to have had such a dedicated advisor to hold my hand through this process!

In regard to empowering audiences, do you think visualizations like yours could/should be utilized as a part of a treatment plan for patients with mental health concerns?

Something like this could be used to supplement an otherwise complete treatment plan. We know what’s happening in a broken bone, (swelling, inflammation, healing, etc). What makes mental health so different? Asthmatic patients understand the constriction happening in their lungs, diabetic children are taught from the moment of their diagnosis what blood sugar is and how insulin is an important part of their disease. These communities are also taught how to manage their chronic condition and how their treatment works from a medical perspective. Why does mental health have to be different?

Did you find any surprises in your research?

The biggest surprise in my research came during the literature review stage. I just thought providing a biogenic explanation of depression would be enough to reduce stigma and increase literacy about the disease. However, I came across several papers that essentially stated I was dead wrong–that providing biogenic explanations actually increase stigma and make symptomatic individuals less hopeful for their recovery. As it turns out, with any educational material regarding someone’s condition, you must emphasize malleability. In other words, visualizations of medical conditions must not only show the cause of the condition, but the ability to successfully treat it. Without that second half, you leave viewers helpless in the face of their on biology, as they’ll view it as a disability rather than a chemical state. Emphasizing malleability gives people control and agency over their conditions.

What advice would you give to students considering completing a similar research project?

Mental health research is vast and without consensus. So many camps of research exist–No one knows the exact cause of depression, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and all treatment plans are developed via trial and error. So be willing to look broadly, and seek out professionals that specialize in the mental health condition you’re interested in.

In providing a biogenic explanation with emphasis on malleability, how do you balance that with an appropriate level of scientific complexity? How much detail and/or depth is needed to accompany the biogenic explanation to effectively reach your target audience?

This is the next step in my research. In the current product, we have incorporated varying levels of scientific complexity that can be accessed at the viewers discretion to accommodate for varying literacy among the projected audience. For our long term goal, we intend on testing each level of complexity to see what amount of detail is appropriate or necessary for mental health outreach. TL;DR: We don’t know this yet, but have prepared the current project in anticipation for testing this later.

Based on your research and review of other mental health campaigns, what is the most effective style of visualization for this subject matter?

This is almost an entirely different research question. I hope that a future BVIS first year sees this: “What is the most effective style of visualization for mental health outreach”? Current styles that exist are cartoon, infographic, hyper-realistic CGI, real-footage and imaging, etc. The comparison between these visualization styles has not been a component of my project, but is incredibly compelling and has value in being investigated.

Neurological research often utilizes imaging techniques to visualize dynamic processes happening in the brain such as fMRIs and PET scans. How did you come to the decision to include/not include these visualizations in your work?

Funnily enough, brain imaging techniques are actually what my content expert, Dr. Phan, specializes in. We discussed at length which camp of depression research to move forward with. Would it be the brain visualizations from different imaging scans, which can actually show brain activity live in subjects? These images surely would show direct comparisons between depressed and non depressed subjects and which areas of their brain exhibit higher or lower activity.

Or, would it be the neurotrophic hypothesis of depression, which uses data obtained from animal studies and post-mortem human subjects, but shows how hormone response to stress can cause actual morphological changes in neurons? These observations surely show how it can be more difficult to develop healthy coping mechanisms in depressed subjects, based on neuron morphology.  

The reason why we chose the neurotrophic response is not a monumental one. It’s simply that we did not have evidence that one held greater effect over the other. My content expert agreed with this conclusion, and thus we chose to explore the neurotrophic hypothesis. Here is another amazing research project idea: “What is more effective in showing the tangible differences in the brain that occur with depression: neuron morphology, or brain activity?”

The wording on that last question needs some work, but is completely valid as the start of a research question. Looking at neurons is very different from looking at scans that show brain activity, and can confer different information regarding depression or mental disease. Which would be better, I wonder?



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