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Career & Employment

August 10, 2009
Volume 87, Number 32
pp. 48-50

Employment Outlook

Where Art Meets Science

For scientists with a flair for the visual, illustration is a fulfilling career

Carmen Drahl

Anton Grassl/Esto
CAPTIVATING Wong (center) and colleagues stand in front of the Broad Institute's media wall, which Wong helped design.
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MAKING MESSAGES Both Allen and Smith have designed covers for C&EN. Smith's is on top.
Courtesy of Janet Iwasa
TECH SKILLS Iwasa works at her computer at a conference.

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Peter Allen loves to get scientists talking about their work. But sometimes he needs to guide the conversation a bit so he can do his job.

Allen brings chemical and other scientific concepts to life with his graphics. On a typical day, a researcher might stop by Allen's office and ask whether he can produce a cover illustration for an upcoming journal issue. "So then I'll ask, 'What've you got to illustrate this story?' " Allen says. Sometimes, the only graphic the scientist will have is a line graph, which isn't too much to go on.

It's then that Allen's job really begins. Together with the researcher, he delves deeper into the new work to figure out what the key concepts are and what the intended audience might need to see in an illustration. One researcher who came to Allen with a graph turned out to be working with fullerenes, which lend themselves to captivating images.

People like Allen, a marketing director for the department of engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wear many hats. They create branding and messaging for institutions; provide illustrations for journals, textbooks, and TV shows; develop animations; and think about how to display an ever-growing flood of scientific data in a grant application or a presentation. No typical pathway exists for landing a position like his. Nor are staff jobs plentiful—many illustrators work as freelancers or start their own businesses. But for scientifically inclined people with a good sense of aesthetics and a healthy dose of ingenuity, it's possible to carve out similar niches.

Janet Iwasa found her calling—animation—during doctoral studies in biochemistry and cell biology. She became interested in animation as a tool for understanding the dynamics of a cell's cytoskeleton. After a once-per-week animation course during graduate school, she realized she wanted to use animation as a research methodology to help other scientists see concepts more clearly. Thanks to a fellowship from a now-discontinued training program that was funded by the National Science Foundation's Chemistry Division, she developed an innovative postdoctoral experience.

The money funded an intensive animation course at the Gnomon School of Visual Effects, in Hollywood, Calif., and her subsequent postdoctoral work at Massachusetts General Hospital, where she developed graphics about the origins of life. Today, she's a lecturer in molecular visualization at Harvard Medical School.

Hollywood isn't the only place to learn the tricks of the trade. Several programs specifically dedicated to science illustration exist, such as the two-year master's program in art as applied to medicine at Johns Hopkins University and the one-year science illustration certificate program at California State University, Monterey Bay (formerly at UC Santa Cruz).

Bang Wong, a 2001 graduate of the Hopkins program, changed directions during his postgraduate training in immunology. Digging narrowly into one scientific topic didn't appeal to him as much as he'd thought it would, and he'd always enjoyed drawing. Already at Hopkins for his immunology training, he enrolled in the illustration program at the same time. He paid his way through the program, which in the 2008–09 school year cost $36,100 per year, by combining a departmental scholarship and loans, including some interest-free loans from foundations set up for helping medical students. "I convinced them that educating people about medicine through medical illustration was worthy of their support," Wong says. He graduated from Hopkins with two master's degrees, one in immunology and one in medical illustration.

After a stint at Virtual Text, an online textbook publisher, Wong started ClearScience, a design firm aimed at working with scientists to express their ideas visually. His coworkers are located across the country and work with diverse clients, from journals to TV shows such as "NOVA scienceNOW."

It isn't necessary to have formal art schooling to break into design and illustration jobs in science, as Eric Smith's path exemplifies. As an assistant for a researcher at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research, in La Jolla, Calif., Smith carried out clerical duties and helped lab members put together posters and presentations. He ultimately became focused on graphics, teaching himself what he needed to know. He later moved to Harvard University's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where he did similar work for another research group. When the head of that research group passed away, he worked out a funding arrangement with several Dana-Farber-affiliated scientists that allowed him to stay on at the institute while maximizing his freedom to work on multiple projects.

"I love being able to take something that's fascinating and through art make people realize how great it is."

There are a few traits that all budding illustrators need to have, says Gary P. Lees, director of the Hopkins program. Despite the proliferation of computer technology, they still need good artistic skills, such as comprehension of light on form and knowledge of how to use color, he says. More subtle skill sets are equally important, such as a willingness to continually learn new science, a generally inquisitive nature, and attention to detail.

"A lot of folks think of what I do as strictly art, but it's a combination of different skills," Iwasa agrees. Business acumen, or at least the ability to market oneself, is another strong component of her skill set, she adds.

Knowing the vocabulary of science helps in discussing ideas with researchers, Allen adds. He also has a general feel for how bonds rotate and how molecules move. "It helps to have enough background so that when someone describes polypeptides they can get right to what they want instead of describing what that means," he explains.

In his position as director of visual communication at the Broad Institute, in Cambridge, Mass., Wong says his background comes in handy when he talks to scientists about their data organization and processing needs. He structures his design choices to help bring out meaning from vast amounts of information. With researchers and software engineers, he thinks about ways to represent raw data streaming into the institute's computers from genome-wide studies and high-throughput small-molecule screens. He's already helped develop a series of exhibits for the public that sit in the institute's lobby. He's hoping that visual representation helps the institute's researchers see trends in their data.

Besides those at research institutes and universities, illustrator jobs also exist at hospitals, publishing houses for journals or textbooks, and government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Geological Survey, and NSF.

But staff positions are relatively rare, and the recession has had varied effects on the illustrators who spoke with C&EN. "My colleagues with freelance businesses have felt the impact of the economy," Wong says. Work that gets assigned to freelancers tends to be further down the priority list for a journal or institution and can be one of the first things to get cut in a downturn, Wong explains. The economy has also affected university and foundation endowments, but Iwasa and Smith report relatively little change to their daily work so far.

"Our students are very worried" about the recession, although the class that just graduated all landed jobs, Lees says. The jobs are a little tighter than they were before, in part because ad agencies are cutting back and pharma isn't spending as much as it used to, he adds.

No matter what the state of the economy is, one of the best things a person interested in exploring a career in illustration or animation can do is become familiar with the software involved, Smith says. He recommends open-source programs such as Gimp and Inkscape, which are analogous to the graphics editing programs Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator. For three-dimensional rendering, he suggests a free program called Blender.

Iwasa emphasizes that the software she and other illustrators use can be difficult and time-consuming to master. "If you don't like working in front of a computer and dealing with the technical hassles that inevitably come up, this work may not be a good fit," she says.

Furthermore, "you can't be afraid of exploring and failing," Smith says. "Like experiments, a graphic or animation can fail. A visual might become too cluttered to be helpful," he says. But he's learned from failed graphics and tries to avoid similar mistakes in subsequent projects.

Scientific illustration can be rewarding work. But there is no defined path to success. "You may have to find a back door, such as a lab assistant position, that allows you to demonstrate your skills and create a market for yourself," Smith says.

For those with the skills and determination, design and illustration are great ways to channel a passion for science, Smith adds. "I love being able to take something that's fascinating, or a really big discovery, and through art make people realize how great it is."

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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