How NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio makes stories out of stats

Creating viral science graphics requires design, storytelling and a bit of careful rule-breaking. Mark SubbaRao, lead at NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio, tells CR how they turn complex data into compelling visual narratives

“Our mission is to tell the story of NASA science,” says Mark SubbaRao, astronomer turned designer and lead at the organisation’s Scientific Visualization Studio (SVS). The ten-strong team of visualisers turns out around 100 graphics each year, exploring everything from lunar eclipses to arctic sea ice and climate conditions for agricultural workers. Its database holds almost 9,000 visualisations and counting.

The graphics are made for a variety of different purposes, including NASA’s various websites, press releases, and social media, and are used by museums, planetariums, meteorologists, documentary filmmakers and, recently, screens at COP26. “Often, somebody will be watching TV and they’ll be like, hey is that your thing in the back?” jokes SubbaRao, who’s been lead at the lab for the last two years.

He originally trained as an astronomer, and spent some time working on the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, helping to build three-dimensional maps of the universe, encompassing over three million astronomical objects. SubbaRao found himself spending more time on visualisation and design, and less on astronomy, ultimately taking a job as director of the Space Visualization Laboratory at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

Top image: Still from the Reference Elevation Model of Antarctica; Above: moon phase still; Below: A visualisation of zonal temperature anomalies

“A lot of the time when you’re doing science, you’re really focused on a particular problem,” he tells CR. “But when you’re communicating with the public you get to talk about everything – all those things that made you interested and want to be an astronomer.”