Judith R. Brown
Scientific visualization is a rapidly growing field which combines several disciplines-computational science, computer science, cognitive science, computer graphics systems, and the visual arts-in a common search for new scientific insight. This goal is achieved by using computer graphics tools and techniques to examine the enormous amount of data produced by modern scientific simulations or experiments. "Visualization" has become a buzzword, frequently misused. The important concept is that the information and insight gained from the use of computer graphics are important, not the graphics themselves.
My job is to consult with researchers to determine how their data might be visualized and to help bring their data into the available visualization software. What do I like about my job? My job is so exciting to me that I can hardly wait to get to work in the morning. Each project is a different challenge, and, although we can do some very good work on low-level equipment such as Macintoshes, more advanced workstations are now affordable. Working in a university environment offers both drawbacks and advantages. The drawbacks are in the areas of equipment acquisition and salary. Universities have less money than major industries, which means that major equipment acquisitions are more difficult to obtain and take longer, and university salaries are traditionally 10% to 50% lower than those in industry. On the other hand, flexible working hours, more vacation, and creative freedom in your job are common in the university environment.
My background is a mix of formal and informal training. My formal education includes a BA in mathematics and education, with a curriculum heavy in the sciences, and an MS in theoretical mathematics. The first company I worked for trained me to program computers because this was in 1964 and there was not yet a computer science program in my university. I have also worked as a consultant on computer graphics hardware and software, across disciplines, for 10 years. My arts background is informal. I have taken pottery classes, have been an art museum docent, and have been active in several arts organizations on campus.
Today, however, there are formal computer graphics courses one can and should take in most colleges and universities, and there are beginning to be programs in scientific visualization. If you want to work as a visualization specialist, you should have a computer science background which includes computer graphics and user interface training. You need strong mathematical skills, especially in linear algebra. You also need visual training from the arts, especially in color theory and drawing. A background with a variety of sciences is also important since the projects range across many scientific and nonscientific disciplines.
Computer graphics professions tend to be multidisciplinary, and scientific visualization is no exception. This is an area where mathematics, science and art coalesce. It is also an area where communications skills-visual, oral, and written-are extremely important.