UTM’s Master of Science in Biomedical Communications is a unique two-year program that offers students a chance to prepare for a communications career related to health, medicine and science. Last week, The Medium sat down with Dr. Andrea Gauthier, UTM’s most recent Ph.D. graduate from the Biomedical Communications program, to discuss her research and her interest in both biology and art.

As a high school student, Gauthier always had a keen interest in art, specifically illustration. She pursued a Bachelor of applied arts in illustration with a specialization in technical and scientific illustration at Sheridan College. It was at Sheridan that Kathryn Chorney, a Biomedical Communications graduate, introduced Gauthier to the field of medical illustrations. Dr. Jodie Jenkinson, an assistant professor in biomedical communications at UTM and Gauthier’s Ph.D. supervisor, inspired Gauthier to pursue doctoral research. Gauthier celebrated her convocation this November, as a Ph.D. graduate under the supervision of Jenkinson in the ScienceVis Lab.

“Biology was my favorite class in high school,” Gauthier recalls. She says that she was passionate about art and biology but at the time, she was not aware of how to combine those two fields together in a comprehensible way, not until Kathryn Chorney introduced her to the biomedical communications program at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

According to Gauthier, her research focuses on “the intersection of science communication and game based learning research. Within the department of biomedical communications, we look at how the design of visual media affects how viewers perceive or learn from it.” Gauthier is interested in how the design and interactions of the game influence how people behave in the game and the results in learning outcomes. Gauthier specifically looked at conceptual change in molecular biology.

“We envision cells to be these very efficient little machines and we think of randomness or change as inefficient so people get this misconception that molecules don’t move randomly or they’re moving randomly until they’re needed by the cell to go to something and that’s just not the case,” Gauthier explains. “It’s because everything moves so fast and there’s so many of them that even though everything is happening randomly, it works. It’s very hard to envision even though students are being told they move randomly, they don’t have a clear understanding of what’s happening within a cell.”

During the beginning of her Ph.D., Gauthier designed a game for learning vascular anatomy called “Vascular Invaders.”

“One thing that our anatomy instructor said was ‘The best way to learn vascular anatomy is to imagine that you are in one place in the circulatory system and you need to get to the other. Name all the blood vessels you go through to get there.’ I thought, you know what, that sounds like a game, so I based vascular invaders off of that concept,” Gauthier says.

She saw that people used the game more exploratorily when they weren’t given limitations within the game, such as limited energy. On the contrary, people who were given the game with limitations used a very strategic method to go through the levels. “Even though the learning outcomes where the same, it was very interesting to see how the different versions of the game changed the method of learning,” Gauthier notes.

During the bulk of her Ph.D. Gauthier has worked on a game design called “MolWorld,” short for molecular worlds, to get people to visualize the randomness of molecules through a simulation and to get them to face the actual misconceptions about the behaviour of molecules in a cell.

When asked about her favourite memory from working in the ScienceVis lab, Gauthier explains that it was amazing to see the full lab of biology students playing her game for the first time and to see their thought process play out on the screen.

Looking towards the future, Gauthier’s ultimate goal is to be doing research at an academic level in either game based learning or science visualization, or ideally a hybrid of the two.