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?


Post-Defense Interview: Tiffany Raber

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 week, Tiffany Raber defended her project research, “An Interactive Program Incorporating 3D Models and 2D Illustrations for Enhanced Prostate MRI Training.”


Tiffany Raber

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

Tiffany: I basically created a place for medical students and residents to play with prostates!

What inspired or led to your research project?

Choosing a research project was a daunting process for me, as it determined what a large part of my next year and a half would be dedicated to. I investigated many possibilities, but I can honestly say that Dr. Oto, my content expert, inspired me to take on this research project. He is doing some fascinating work to improve diagnoses of prostate cancer through MRI, and his enthusiasm for the positive impact our project could make in higher education excited me to be on his team.

You graduated from Ball State with majors in Biology and Drawing, specifically illustration, correct? What drew you towards a research project focusing on interactivity rather than illustration?

I chose to attempt and interactive research project before even knowing if I would be successful at developing or scripting in game engines, which sounds crazy. Coming into this program, traditional illustration was all that I knew. Once BVIS introduced me to all of the different possibilities to visually communicating science, I was determined to expand my skillset. In fact, my favorite thing about this master’s program is that our faculty train us to never be fearful of tackling a new concept, skill, or program.

How did you meet Dr. Oto? Was there a connection from faculty at UIC or did you have a previous interest in prostate cancer?

Our program director, John Daugherty, provides us an awesome opportunity of taking a class that introduces us to possible research projects and/ or connections our first semester.  Dr. Oto at The University of Chicago was actually our first visit.  

That seems like a daunting skill set to have to undertake in such a short time, especially while balancing other coursework. Would you consider yourself a risk-taker or confident in your ability to pick skills up as needed? How did you manage your time between research, classes and your other activities?

I’ll say this over and over again.  This program equips every single student the skills to learn quickly and explore anything and everything. I think I am sometimes a risk taker, but it is all a part of a bigger picture that I am striving for. I love what I do, so picking up a new skill was yet another fun adventure to begin.

As for balancing all of the responsibilities of research, grad school and life; that is the challenge.  My research advisor, Leah Lebowicz , really helped me improve my time management skills. I am a person of detail and structure, so once my schedule was mapped out each week, I felt confident that I achieve the goals in front of me.  

If you could hang out with one person, living or dead, who would that be? What would you do?

Anybody that knows me can answer this. It would obviously be Kanye West. We would probably meet in the Southside of Chicago and talk about his art, music, experiences, struggles, and well… himself.  I wouldn’t mind though because, “I love (Kanye) like Kanye loves Kanye.”

What do you think is the biggest challenge in radiology education?

Currently, I think the biggest challenge in teaching radiology is finding an efficient and cost effective way at implementing the curriculum within medical education that is clinically applicable.

Can you talk more about the lack of focus in radiology education that you discussed in your defense?

Medical institutions are struggling to incorporate MRI training into their curriculum. This is detrimental to all diagnostics, not just prostate cancer. Based on my research, I found that the main reason for the lack in radiology education is due to the extra time and labor from already stretched physicians. In addition, MRI education comes at a very high monetary price, leaving few universities with access to the facilities they would see in their everyday clinical experience.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in creating this project?

This is a tough question. I recall two different obstacles, in different points within my research, that I found especially difficult to overcome. During the preproduction phase of research, learning prostate anatomy and pathology within magnetic resonance imaging at an appropriate level was challenging. On the production side, becoming comfortable with Unity and C# scripting was an intimidating learning curve. It took months to really understand the logic behind the development process, but once I did, it all came full circle and clicked.  

If you had to start over from scratch, is there anything you would have done differently?

Just like with any research, it can always be improved and expanded upon. I think if I could have done anything differently, it would have been to dive into the production phase earlier to give myself time to play and explore with different programs.

Is there anything I haven’t asked that you wish I would of? What would the answer be?

You have asked some fantastic questions. I think if I could add anything to this interview, it would just be to recognize my research team. Without them, this research would not exist. My research advisor, Leah Lebowicz, couldn’t have been a better mentor and friend. She led me in all of the right directions and pushed me as a researcher and person. My content expert, Dr. Aytekin Oto, has showed so much enthusiasm and dedication toward this project. His time and commitment were invaluable to the credibility in my research. Lastly, both Kevin Brennan (tech genius) and Donna Hughes (design expert) played a huge role in the success of this research. My team made this experience unforgettable and I will forever be appreciative that they believed in me.

BVIS Students Win Vesalius Trust Awards

About the Vesalius Trust

The Vesalius Trust for Visual Communication in the Health Sciences is a prestigious award granted to students each year by the Vesalius Trust. Grant money from these awards fully or partially fund meritorious student research.  The UIC BVIS program is proud to announce that 5 of our students have received awards this year! We wanted to spotlight their amazing research projects that are pushing the boundaries of our field.

Christina Lorenzo – Vesalian Scholar

Developing Interactive Learning for Continuous Glucose Monitoring.


The newest technology in diabetes management is the continuous glucose monitoring system. This system provides glucose readings roughly every five minutes and allows a patient to see real-time trajectories of their glucose levels. Since this technology is relatively new, there are few associated patient materials available to teach patients how to make lifestyle changes based on their recorded glucose trajectories. Also, the materials available mostly focus on patients with type 1 diabetes, who use insulin to manage their diabetes. Thus there is a need for an educational tool for patients with type 2 diabetes utilizing continuous glucose monitoring.

This research project investigates how to develop an interactive learning tool for patients utilizing continuous glucose monitoring. Through collaboration with Dr. Rasa Kazlauskaite at the Rush University Medical Center, a beta product of the interactive learning tool is being developed. The tool will run real-life scenarios that visualize how meal and lifestyle choices affect glucose trajectories in both healthy patients and patients with type 2 diabetes. It is intended that the tool will be used by the clinician to engage the patient in an educational discussion about continuous glucose monitoring. From this discussion the patient would then apply what they learned to their own CGM data. The effectiveness of this beta product will be first evaluated by health professionals specializing in diabetes and then tested on patients. The product will be revised after each testing phase and will ultimately be made available to patients in the clinic with the physician and as a stand-alone tool through the web.

See more work at Christina’s website,, or check out her Faces of BVIS post here to learn more about her.


Adriana Orland – Research Grant

Animating External Magnetic Guidance of Intrathecally Delivered Gold-Coated Nanoparticles to Treat Intramedullary Spinal Tumors.

Intramedullary spinal tumors (IMSCTs) are rare neoplasms in the central nervous system (CNS), accounting for 2-4% of all CNS tumors (Tobin et al., 2015). Astrocytoma, a common type of IMSCT, is infiltrative, and a clear plane of dissection between the normal spinal cord tissue and the tumor does not exist. The resulting inadequacy of surgical approaches for tumor removal, coupled with adverse effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy make the development of other more effective and potentially less toxic alternatives, imperative. Recently, neurosurgical researchers have proposed the use of external magnets to guide intrathecal delivery of gold-coated nanoparticles to the site of tumors as a less invasive treatment for eliminating astrocytomas (Leushen et al., 2014; Tobin et al., 2015).

Previous surgical research has shown animation as an effective method to introduce new surgical techniques. Several studies have concluded that educational animations are paramount to augment both traditional textbooks and conventional surgical videos to develop mental models of relevant anatomical structures, and to demonstrate the technical skills required to perform the procedure (Flores et al., 2013; Prinz et al., 2005).

This project will create a novel animation to explain the use of magnetic drug targeting (MDT) with a gold-coated nanoparticle system to treat intramedullary spinal tumors. It will serve as a didactic resource for future grant applications and for patient education in anticipated upcoming clinical trials.

See more work at Adriana’s website,, or check out her Faces of BVIS post here to learn more about her.


Christina Sidorowych – Research Grant

Visualizing The Human Embryonic Development of the Heart’s Outflow Tract.

Human embryology provides a logical basis for understanding the overall organization of the human body and offers students the scientific basis for understanding mechanisms underlying both normal and abnormal development. The development of the human heart is one of the most complex processes to study in embryology. The heart is undergoing complex folding and various views and angles are needed to visualize this, making it very difficult to comprehend and learn the developmental process. Visualizing the 3-dimensional changes that include complex twisting and folding during the heart’s outflow tract development is especially difficult.

With the collaboration of both content experts, anatomy professor Dr. Callum Ross from the University of Chicago and anatomy professor Dr. Douglas Cotanche from the University of Illinois at Chicago, this research project will develop a 3D interactive program. This project will investigate how to best visually communicate the formation of the heart’s outflow tact in a concise and efficient manner. Interactives have been shown to significantly advance the quality and effectiveness of learning environments for students.This interactive tool will depict the twisting and folding of the heart’s outflow tract development, in addition users will be able to rotate the object in a 3-dimensinal interface. Modes and tools in the application will allow students to explore the heart’s outflow tract through various cross sections and control the animation of the heart developing. Testing before and after use of the 3D interactive tool, will evaluate medical student’s knowledge on heart development and visual spatial relationships. Results of this project will provide evidence on the effectiveness of three-dimensional interactive visual learning tools for the education of medical students.

See more work at Christina’s website,, or check out her Faces of BVIS post here to learn more about her.


Matthew Cirigliano – Research Grant

Cirigliano graduated from the BVIS program in 2010 and is currently a doctoral candidate at NYU.

Studies in the learning sciences suggest that drawing may prove valuable as a reflective exercise, a learning diagnostic, and a potential cognitive tool. Although studies using art in medical training are existent and interventions allowing for more efficient learning and better retention are desirable, very few strategies explore learner-made drawings as an option. In the present research project, a study has been designed to determine whether the generation of anatomical drawings at different times during the use of a learning app about radiograph interpretation will improve learning. Performance data collected from participants using the app in each of the three groups (and one control group without drawing) will determine which cognitive activities (i.e. critical looking, sense-making, and reflection) are best supported by drawing during deliberate fracture identification practice. Results will also determine what covariates (e.g. visuo-spatial ability, experience, gender, age, etc.) will moderate the effects of drawing during learning.

The present project is progressing smoothly, as I am now in the process of the pilot phase of the experimental protocol’s development, which incorporates “voice aloud” procedures to collect verbal utterances during the experimental task. These qualitative data will not only streamline the experimental procedure, but they will also tell us how and why students draw the way they do during learning. So far, vocal utterances collected have revealed fascinating insights on what value and uses drawing has across all three treatments. Once the main experiment has come to a close, and data has been collected for all 140 participants, I hope to do further statistical analyses on how the act of drawing affects diagnostic accuracy, performance, and cognition during learning and practice in the medical field.

See more work at Matt’s website,


Congratulation to the winners! We would also like to congratulate all the research committee members and BVIS/BHIS faculty for their continued and dedicated contributions to the research of our students. In addition, we congratulate every Vesalius Trust grant applicant, and we wish all of this year’s graduates success and look forward to seeing the impact they make on our field.