GA+ Sessions – Should educational resources be using only 2D images to explain 3D processes?

What comes to mind when you think about molecular biology?

I think about motor proteins walking along a cell’s cytoskeleton, carrying vesicles full of cargo to the places they’re needed. I was shown an animation of this during my second year at university. It’s crazy to think that there are little proteins walking along structures inside your cells to deliver things, much like post men and women walk along the street to deliver your parcels, don’t you think?

 We have the technology and we have the knowledge, to create amazing resources to showcase biology, so why doesn’t the level of our educational resources reflect our capabilities and imagination?

Biological systems at the molecular level are microscopic, and naturally there are challenges involved when learning about complex processes that you can’t see. However, to fully understand them you need to be able to visualise them, and the importance of this is underestimated.

 I have a master’s degree in molecular biology, but throughout most of my education I was taught how highly dynamic 3D processes worked using mainly large volumes of text, and static, 2D images. I loved learning about the molecular details behind cellular processes during my degree, and several questions came to mind every time I learnt about a new topic. How did processes like this, that are so intricate and complex, materialise? What other amazing things are happening that I can’t even see? And, what would this process really look like in action?  Trying to understand, for example, muscle contraction, with images like this, was very time consuming.

Images such as these are vital in building a detailed understanding of the process, but learning about such dynamic processes in this way is difficult, and you need to use your imagination to visualise what’s going on to fully understand how everything fits together. [1]

I put a lot of time and effort into understanding what I was being taught, but always thought about how great it would it be if there was something that could tie it all together at the end, to make it easier to understand and more memorable.

Every now and then a lecturer would show us an animation of the process we were learning about that would do just that, and then everything would suddenly make sense. For processes that are covered in A-level courses, such as muscle contraction, there are now animations like this. Even this simple 2D animation can really help tie up loose ends in your understanding, and the following comments were left on this video on YouTube. Pause this and have a quick read of them. For most topics, animations like this are not available.

The exocyst complex was one of the most complicated processes I studied, and it was taught with images like these. [2]

As you can probably imagine, the last thing you want to have to do during an exam, is draw this diagram.The circles with numbers inside are all different proteins which make up the exocyst complex and are assembled in a specific sequence. There is great potential for an animation to make learning this process easier, as well as with hundreds of other topics.  

Scientific animations can show processes with the correct stoichiometry in 3D and at the real-time rate. This makes them accurate and realistic, yet also a creative representation of what is really happening. Most importantly, animation videos can get across the dynamic details that 2D images can’t and can make complex processes much faster to teach and learn. They streamline the learning process and aid long-term memory retention by getting across complex information in more easily digestible and memorable ways.[3]

 Animation videos should be at the forefront of education, at school, degree level and beyond, to better inspire generations to come and to facilitate learning. If institutions want their students to be more motivated and to achieve better grades, why not invest in and develop more engaging educational resources? It seems in this increasingly digital world that this would be a natural progression, but progress has been slow. The time has come for institutions to invest in more informative and inspiring educational resources, we have the knowledge and we have the technology, so why not?


1.         College, O. Muscle Fiber Contraction and Relaxation | Anatomy and Physiology I.
2020; Available from:

2.         Ahmed, S.M., et al.,
Exocyst dynamics during vesicle tethering
and fusion.
Nature Communications, 2018. 9(1): p. 1-17.

3.         McClean, P., et al.,
Molecular and Cellular Biology
Animations: Development and Impact on Student Learning.
Cell Biol Educ,
2005. 4(2): p. 169-79.

Like this article?

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on Linkdin
Share on Pinterest

Leave a comment