Pacific Beach resident develops video game to inspire girls in science

UC San Diego scientist Beata Mierzwa launched the video game "Microscopya" on July 8.
(Courtesy of Beata Mierzwa)

Continuing on her path to influence others — particularly girls — to pursue science, local researcher Beata Mierzwa launched a new video game about the inside of a cell last month.

Mierzwa also presented the game, “Microscopya,” at the Comic-Con Museum in San Diego’s Balboa Park as part of the If/Then Pop-up STEAM Fair for science, technology, engineering, arts and math that ran July 21-24.

The Pacific Beach resident, who is a postdoctoral researcher in molecular biology at UC San Diego in La Jolla and the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research on the UCSD campus, received a grant from the American Association for the Advancement of Science as one of its If/Then ambassadors. It is a role in which she works to encourage female interest and innovation in science.

As an If/Then ambassador, Mierzwa earned a feature last year on “Mission Unstoppable,” a CBS TV show aimed at highlighting work like hers, and has created a clothing line with her artistic drawings of cells and cell division.

“Microscopya,” which took Mierzwa two years to develop with help from her longtime partner, Matthew Cooney, uses hand-drawn illustrations and puzzles based on scientific concepts to explore the inside of a cell.

“We want to share the beauty of the work inside the cell,” Mierzwa said. “Often when you look at textbooks … it all seems very complex and everything is very isolated and simplified. But when I started studying molecular biology and I started doing microscopy, I realized how amazing and beautiful the world is inside.”

“Microscopya” took Beata Mierzwa and partner Matthew Cooney two years to develop.
(Courtesy of Beata Mierzwa)

“Microscopya” offers a “world where there is a joy to explore, (which) shows a little bit of that complexity and beauty and dynamic nature of the world inside of us,” she said.

The game, also funded with support from the American Society for Cell Biology, was originally developed for young female students as part of Mierzwa’s science outreach, but she soon realized it was appropriate for people of all ages, backgrounds and genders.

With plenty of visuals to “inspire creative people,” Mierzwa said the game highlights that art and science “go hand in hand. You can be creative and love art and also be a scientist.”

“Microscopya” is largely educational but is also an experience, Mierzwa said, not merely “a textbook that is disguised as a game.”

“I love to visually communicate science with drawings and fashion and now an interactive kind of medium,” she said.

The game elements, from the puzzles to the music, are meant to be immersive and enjoyable, said Cooney, who has a master’s degree and experience in international business and is pursuing a master’s in biology. “We’re not forcing you to learn facts or words. … You’re just going to glean some information off the experience.”

The game has been tested by a wide audience, Mierzwa said, and many continued playing the game at home and provided positive feedback.

Developing the game afforded both Mierzwa and Cooney an opportunity to gain experience in a field foreign to both of them.

“We both grew up playing video games,” Mierzwa said, explaining she always thought that “if I had the chance to study something completely new and unrelated for fun, it would be video game design.”

She and Cooney eventually found programmers at Atelier Monarch Studios to help them code “Microscopya,” incorporating the puzzles and visuals with music by Jamie van Dyck of the band Earthside.

“It’s been a long journey. We’re really excited,” Mierzwa said.

“I love to visually communicate science with drawings and fashion and now an interactive kind of medium.”

— Beata Mierzwa

She said she hopes “Microscopya” will lead to more science games and added that getting the game into the hands of a wide audience might lead to her follow up with one about cell division.

Cooney said he hopes the game will make science a viable path for anyone interested.

“I loved biology (but) it never crossed my mind (until adulthood) that I could work in science,” he said. Having a game like “Microscopya” earlier would have made that option more accessible, he added.

The game will be on Android, iOS and web browsers and will be free for everyone.

“We want to make sure there are no barriers,” Mierzwa said.

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