O Death Where Is Thy Sting?

A 3D animation on the role of AhR in systemic lupus erythematosus

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks healthy tissue in various parts of the body. Our understanding of SLE’s causative mechanisms are poor and current treatments are sparse. Recently, researchers at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre’s McGaha Lab, in partnership with scientists around the world, have uncovered the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR) as a critical link within the process of maintaining self-tolerance (the immune system’s ability to recognize self). While this is an exciting discovery with promising therapeutic potential, they need a way to communicate their complex findings in an understandable and accurate manner to various audiences, including potential graduate students.

My animation project aims to highlight the forefront of SLE research by elucidating the role of AhR in immune self-tolerance and SLE development. By fully utilizing the medium of animation, this project’s ultimate goal is to fuel interest, increased attention, and hope in SLE research.


University of Toronto Department of Immunology

Faculty Supervisors

Nick Woolridge

   University of Toronto Biomedical Communications Program

Michael Corrin

   University of Toronto Biomedical Communications Program

Content Supervisor

Tracy McGaha

   Princess Margaret Cancer Centre

   University of Toronto Department of Immunology


Undergraduate students, potential graduate students and post-docs, science-savvy public


Research Proposal

April - June 2018

  • Scientific research on SLE, AhR, etc.

  • Media audit of molecular, cellular, and research-based animations

  • Analysis of visual communication problems


August - November 2018

  • Establishment of story, narration, and tone

  • Creation of 7 iterations

View proposal
View script version 7

September - December 2018

  • Exploration and clarification of narrative, visual, and storytelling content

  • Creation of 3 script iterations and 2 storyboard iterations


December 2018 - April 2019

Adobe After Effects

  • Polishing of visual content, animated movements, timing, transitions, etc.

  • Creation of 3 iterations

View storyboard version 1
View storyboard version 2
Animatic version 3


January - June 2019; Maya, Arnold Renderer
The body has an organic, bubbly texture. All of the pseudopodia (arms) can extend and contract, and four of them are also rigged for movement.
Within the macrophage body is a sphere that emits particles which represent cytokines.
Using Maya's blend shapes tool, the macrophage body can change its shape to "eat" pathogens and cells.
Apoptotic cell
The blebbing apoptotic cell was created by generating particles from a point. The particles meld together when they touch each other and they grow and die after a certain amount of time. Then, a mesh surface was generated based on the particle surfaces, thereby simulating a blebbing cell.
Animation (Maya)
Render (Arnold Renderer)
Compositing (After Effects)


AMY CAO 2019