This post was written by Hunter Herriage, a student in the Basics of Science Communication class (MSCI-M509) taught by ScIU blogger Vaishnavi Muralikrishnan and Dr. Claire Walczak.
The first time I remember my malfunctioning eyes affecting my life was when I was younger than 5 years old. I was riding in my grandfather’s truck; we had reached a stop light, and my grandfather said we could go when the light turned green. I remember thinking, “Green? That light is white.” This problem persisted all through K12 school, when a sea of classmates flashed colored pencils at me and asked, “What color is this?” I tried to explain that the issue isn’t interpreting a single pencil of stark shade, but that it’s distinguishing combinations of colors that are close together, like reds vs. greens, greens vs. browns, or purples vs. pinks. This explanation often fell on deaf ears.
As a scientist, it is essential to see details in scientific figures in order to interpret scientific findings. Scientists like to label proteins of interest with things that make them look bright green or red in a microscope, which is a good way to make these features easy to find. While the inability to distinguish between certain colors would seem like an impediment towards understanding the scientific literature, there are numerous scientists with color vision deficiencies.
Colorblindness is a disease that results in a person being unable to distinguish between certain colors and shades. This disease is caused by genetic mutations, which result in a specialized cell type in the eye known as cone cells being unable to properly separate colors of light. According to most sources, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women of North European descent are born with some form of colorblindness, meaning that millions of people around the world either have trouble distinguishing between shades of colors or, more rarely, don’t see colors at all. Thus, there is a sizable portion of the scientific community who are unable to interpret publications we need to be familiar with for our work. In fact, during the process of coming up with the idea for this post, my best friend convinced me to write about this topic by reminding me that I’ve asked her on numerous occasions for help interpreting colorful figures in scientific publications. Here, I will share some of my experiences and advocate for a stronger movement towards accessibility for colorblind scientists.
As a biology graduate student, experiences like the one in my grandfather’s truck have morphed into needing help in science. During my first few weeks in my research lab, one of my labmates presented a beautiful figure for her paper, where she showed thin bands of somewhat faint red and green on a projector. While she was explaining her work, I had to ask her if I wasn’t seeing what I was supposed to see. Upon closer inspection (which involved me getting right in front of the projector screen) and still not seeing anything, I gave up and said, “I’ll just take your word for it…” Of course, this incident was embarrassing for me, but it also showed that this figure hadn’t been made accessible to people with colorblindness.
When presenting my own work for a Science Communications course, I’ve been asked “What’s red in this image?” Meanwhile, I didn’t see any red, nor did I even remember staining that sample red at all. Although this exchange did get a chuckle from the class, professor, and myself, it also concerned me. If I can’t see my own data, then how can I interpret it?
I wrote this post to raise awareness, not to attempt to make a rule for all scientists to follow. There is no one simple resolution to this problem; every colorblind person’s eyes malfunction differently, so what might help me see well could very well hurt someone else. Scientists have started using certain colors in their figures that do tend to work for most of us, but there is no perfect combination of shades. Of course, presenting single-color images and making graphs in only black and white would be helpful, but this isn’t always possible for illustrating the complexities that scientists want to show. As a scientist, I understand this dilemma. But, that doesn’t mean we can’t try to be more conscious of the issue.
I believe we are on the right track to alleviate this problem for most people. However, solving this issue entirely will require more work. Potential solutions range from the researcher choosing more contrasting colors for their work, all the way to journals either having their editors specifically look for issues in figures that might affect a colorblind person or soliciting opinions from colorblind scientists in the field of the publication. I believe through concerted efforts like these, the scientific literature will become less imposing to aspiring young scientists who might be afraid that they can’t be successful researchers because of their defective eyes.
- National Eye Institute (2019). “Color Blindness.” National Institutes of Health.
- Wikipedia (2021). “Color blindness.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.
- Wikipedia (2021). “Green fluorescent protein.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.