A little bit about me!

Today I thought I would tell you a bit about me, my career in science so far and the reasons why I started this blog.

My name is Jo-Maree Courtney – I’m never quite sure how to describe myself beyond “Scientist”. I started out in Neuroscience, did my PhD in Developmental Biology and am now doing a post-doc in Respiratory Medicine – but what all these areas have in common is Molecular Biology and that is my first and continuing fascination.

I clearly remember the high school science unit when we learnt about Mendelian genetics and the basics of meiosis, mitosis and DNA replication. Something in my head just clicked and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. (At around the same time I was reading Jurassic Park – before the film was made – and that just excited me about the potential of DNA even more!). Throughout my undergraduate career at the University of Tasmania I continually made whichever choices gave me the most opportunity to learn about genetics and molecular biology. This resulted in studying quite a bit of botany as the botany department at UTAS specialised in genetics – and left me with a lifelong love of Tasmanian native plants and the ability to identify several species of eucalypt by smell alone! However I was always more interested in genetics as it related to human disease so for my honours research project I moved into neuroscience and studied the potential for regeneration of injured spinal cord neurons.

After graduation I moved from Tasmania to London with my English fiancé (now husband) and, after a bit of time spent in temporary work to fulfil visa requirements, got a position as a Research Technician at University College London in a group studying calcium channels, particularly related to epilepsy. During this time I got my first real experience of using Photoshop – mostly with immunoflourescence staining – and I was hooked. 

With two valuable years of lab experience under my belt I began to look around for an inspiring PhD project and eventually found one at King’s College London studying tooth development. I continued to develop my Photoshop skills and soon found that my colleagues and fellow students were coming to me for advice. By the time I completed my PhD and embarked on post-doctoral research in the same department, I was running regular Photoshop for Scientists tutorials.

The next few years were punctuated by breaks for maternity leave when my two sons were born and a hiatus from academic research while I took up a technical position that better enabled me to concentrate on my growing family. However I continued my interest in Photoshop and continued to run tutorials for the students and post-docs in the department.

Finally, last year I left London and returned back home to my native Tasmania, with my husband and two small boys, ready to continue my academic career. I am now back where I started at the University of Tasmania but now I’m applying my experience in molecular and cellular biology to the field of respiratory medicine. 

So that’s me! I’d love to hear about you – what field of science do you work in? Are you an undergraduate, PhD student, post-doc? How do you use Photoshop in your work?


What size should my image be?

A figure sized to A5 dimensions fits neatly on an A4 page with room for margins and caption.

One question I get asked a lot by colleagues and students is how big should their image be?

There are two related sides to this question – the first is resolution and the second is actual size. I will discuss resolution in more detail in later posts but as a rule of thumb you should have a resolution of at least 300dpi for print or publication. If the image will only ever be used in a presentation you can (and should) take the resolution down to 75dpi.

With regard to the actual size – it depends on the destination of the image. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the image for a publication? In this case, look at the dimensions of the journal in question. Do you want your image to fill a whole page or just one column? You may not have the final say in the positioning of images in your paper but you can plan whether to create wide or narrow images to help with an appealing layout.
  • Is the image for printing in a thesis or dissertation? In this case you will likely have your image on a page of its own with a caption. I suggest you make the image approximately half the size of the whole page. If you will be printing on A4 paper, making your image A5 size (148mm x 210mm) is a good start. An A5 page, in portrait orientation, fits beautifully on an A4 portrait page leaving plenty of room for margins, binding and a caption. Much bigger and your page will look crowded, much smaller and your image will look insignificant in the middle of all that white space.
  • Is your image for a presentation? Take a look at your slide layout – do you want the image to fill the page or just a portion of it? Set the appropriate dimensions before you start creating your image.

The other thing to take into consideration is the dimensions of your original data image (if you are compiling a montage like the one shown here). You will need to think about how many rows and columns you need, whether you need room for labels, and whether the images are to be used as is or cropped.

Whatever you decide to do it is always worth thinking about these things before starting to put together your figure – it is much easier than changing things around later.

Have you discovered any useful rules of thumb for sizing images? 

What do YOU need from this blog?

Today I’m asking you to get involved. I have lots of ideas about what this blog and associated courses should cover but I’d like to hear from you. This website gets a good number of hits from such search terms as “create scientific figures photoshop” and “photoshop as a scientific tool” but I would like to hear specifically what you are looking for.

Please drop me a message if:

  • you have a specific problem using Photoshop for a scientific application that you would like me to address;
  • you would like to have your work using Photoshop featured on the blog as a case study;
  • you have some good examples of either good or bad use of Photoshop for scientific images

Rest assured that any work featured here can be anonymous and specific details of experiments etc will not be revealed so you need not worry about your unpublished work getting out there ahead of time!

I’d really, really like to hear from scientists outside the molecular and cell biology fields (where my experience lies).

I am working on developing a series of e-books/courses covering various aspects of Photoshop for Scientists. I would love to hear what you think and whether you think I should cover anything in particular. This is what I have planned at the moment.

  • The Five Golden Rules of Photoshop for Scientists – this will be a free e-book discussing sure important topics as resolution, image integrity, and file management.
  • Introduction to Photoshop for Scientists – this ebook or ecourse (I’m not sure which yet) will be available for a small charge and will take you through the basic tools in Photoshop required to construct accurate, consistent and appealing montages without spending hours each time!
  • Colour manipulation in Photoshop for Scientists – another ebook/course which will look at the various ways you might want to manipulate the colour (hue, brightness, channels) in Photoshop and delve into the thorny issue of exactly what constitutes an acceptable manipulation and what would be considered falsifying data.
  • Drawing scientific diagrams in Photoshop – my third ebook will look at the various ways you can use Photoshop to create beautiful and informative diagrams to illustrate your research.

Please let me know your thoughts on the above!

5 Sites for Photoshop Tutorials

Although they rarely cover topics directly relevant to scientists, tutorial sites are a great way to learn the various features of Photoshop. Even though you think a particular tutorial may have no relevance to you, you never know when a technique or tool might come in useful. If you look for the short tutorials that only take a few minutes you can quickly learn new skills that you may later find a use for. And if not, then they are just good fun!

Photoshop 101

I used this site a lot when learning Photoshop and I still dip in every now and again. It has a lot of nice, quick tutorials so you can do one if you just have a spare 5 minutes to fill in. I especially like the ones in the Special Effects category such as this Artistic Abstract Shape as they get me playing with parts of Photoshop that I wouldn’t otherwise think to try.

Adobe Exchange

Among all the brush, shape and action downloads (which are another whole topic) there are some lovely tutorials on the official Adobe site.

Good Tutorials

I admit I haven’t been on this site for a while but I used to use it regularly. Looks like it still lives up to its name!

Photoshop Cafe

This site has a nice selection of good looking tutorials. I especially like this one: Colin’s 10 Principles for Better Type Design – lots of very sound typographic principles to apply to your posters and presentations.

Smashing Magazine

While there is plenty to learn about Photoshop from Smashing Magazine, I want to particularly draw your attention to this post compiling some of the best tutorials to be found on the web. So many interesting things here – I think I could get lost for hours!

Of course, there are plenty more Photoshop tutorial sites out there – search Google and see what you find. Next time I’ll give you an example of how following a random tutorial about using paintbrushes led to me solving a question that had bugged me and my colleagues for years!

So now it’s over to you. Your challenge for the weekend is to follow a tutorial or two  and let me know how you get on. Let me know which ones you like and find useful.

Photoshop vs PowerPoint

Firstly I would like welcome my new subscribers – I have noticed quite a few of you have signed up and it’s wonderful that there is such interest in this topic out there!

I apologise for the lack of progress in getting things up and running here but a number of things have gotten in the way (such as starting a new job). Rest assured I haven’t forgotten you and I am planning to get things going within the next few weeks.

Anyway, on to today’s topic. I was asked by my new boss to help a colleague with a diagram that needed ‘prettying up’ for a presentation next week. Of course I said yes (especially as it would make a nice change from reading journal articles which I’ve been doing for the past two weeks). But when my colleague said he had prepared it in PowerPoint my heart sank. I don’t yet have Photoshop installed on my new work computer so I had no choice but to do the best I could in PowerPoint.

Now, I understand why PowerPoint is often used by researchers to make diagrams for their presentations, and even for publications. It is familiar, accessible and doesn’t have a steep learning curve. And it tends to just be there – installed on every computer alongside Word and Excel. But the diagrams created with PowerPoint usually leave a lot to be desired, especially if the user doesn’t really know how to make the best use of the program’s features.

So I have always advised students that PowerPoint is for presentations and Photoshop or Illustrator should be used for diagrams.

However, having been forced into using PowerPoint today I discovered at it has a lot of new features that I hadn’t explored before and I was actually able to make a diagram that I was really pleased with. By carefully using lines, gradients, accurate size and position and the alignment tools I was able to greatly improve upon the original image. But what got me really excited with the ability to draw with bezier curves! I had no idea PowerPoint had this feature and, while it’s not quite the Pen tool, it opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Suddenly I wasn’t limited to the available standard shapes but could draw my own cells any way I wanted.

So maybe Powerpoint isn’t all bad when it comes to making diagrams. I would still prefer to use Photoshop any day of the week but when needs must, I guess Powerpoint has some potential too.

Do any of you use Powerpoint for drawing diagrams? Have you experimented with Bezier curves?


Hello and Welcome!

My name is Jo-Maree Courtney. I’m a scientist with a PhD in Developmental Biology. I love Photoshop and I’m interested in the principles of design, especially when applied to scientific imaging.

Photoshop has become an essential tool for scientists who use it to take raw image data from their microscopes, cameras and other sources and present them in a way that makes their results understandable. I love learning about Photoshop and during the course of my PhD spent a lot of time learning the tricks and tips that would allow me to produce consistent and visually appealing images with minimum of time and while maintaining scientific integrity. However I soon realised that not all my fellow students shared my enthusiasm for the software. In fact I seemed to be in a minority of one.

Once the other students and researchers in the department realised I knew my way around Photoshop they started coming to me for advice. Informal advice sessions soon turned into organised tutorials which developed into a series of regular courses. Now this blog is a way of taking my courses to a wider audience.

If you work in research science – whether as a technician, graduate student, post-doc or senior researcher – I hope you will find something useful here.

Over the coming months I will be building up a number of courses covering different aspects of using Adobe Photoshop for scientific imaging. I will also discuss the issues that need to be considered to maintain integrity of your data and optimising your time while creating visually appealing and professional images.

If you ever have any specific requests or problems please feel free to leave a comment. I look forward to hearing from you!