Science Illustration as a career?

Hello,
I will be entering my senior year at university in OH. I am going to graduate with a bachelor of science degree in biochemistry in 2013.  I used to be a studio art minor my freshman year because I have always enjoyed art. My mother helped me discover my talent when I was 9 years old and I have explored it ever since. I then developed an interest in science when I was exposed to it in high school. For some time I believed that I wanted to go to med school and for another, graduate school in the field. I have a lot of appreciation for science but art has been an integral part of my life and I am having difficulty choosing a career in just science without also integrating the artistic side of me. I heard about scientific illustration before but I have not been able to talk to anyone who has first hand experience with it. It sounds very interesting and it has really drawn me in.

I hope to learn more about the field. Thank you very much for your time.

You've come to the right place! GNSI is a wonderful group and a resource to explore and learn more about scientific illustration. I've been a member for many years, and the group has been tremendously helpful to advance my career and skills as a scientific illustrator.

Scientific illustration is a very specific field of art where the illustrator truly combines their knowledge of science and art to create a visual to teach a specific idea or concept to a specific group of people.  Many of our members create visuals for researchers for use in academic publications and presentations.  Many others create illustrations that are aimed towards the general audience to inform the public about science. Scientific illustration can be found in textbooks, museum exhibits, posters, journals, websites, murals, etc etc.  What makes our work unique is that we recreate and enhance the natural world so others can learn from our illustrations. We strive our work to be accurate and useful.  Because many of us have background in science, we can communicate effectively with scientists and ask the right questions to create the most useful visuals.

Since scientific illustration requires special sets of skills, many scientific illustrators go through courses and programs that are aimed specifically to train in scientific illustration.

If you are looking to pursue post graduate opportunities in scientific illustration, there are numbers of certification programs offered throughout the country.  Do you have a specific field of scientific illustration you want to go into (botanical illustration, paleontological illustration, molecular illustration etc) ? I'd be more than happy to help you look further into the programs. If you are interested in the field as a whole, there are programs that offer overview courses as well.

For graduate programs, there are five programs in N. America that offer masters degree in medical illustration/animation.  All the programs are offered at a medical school and they mostly concentrate on medical art aimed for healthcare and medical fields. They all have a different concentrations-some are animation heavy and some are more "traditional". The programs are fairly competitive and you need to have a solid portfolio that include realistic renders and figure drawings.  They also look at your science grades and past experiences.

If you are interested and if the time allows, I highly recommend attending the annual GNSI conference or a workshop series.  The conference is the best place to meet scientific illustrators and learn about their recent projects and how they do what they do.

Best regards,

Ikumi

Hello Ikumi,

Thank you very much for your email! And thank you for the time you spent elaborating more on what scientific illustration is. This area seems very interesting to me and I would love to gain a better perspective on what different illustrators do. How may I go about doing that? I am nervous because all this time I have been training to be a scientist and somehow my visions have changed. I thought I had gone too far in my undergrad career to not be able to explore anything else other than getting a phd in biochemistry or going to med school. Again, thank you very much. I also realise that if I want to do a grad program in this area I have to plan my senior year accordingly so that I may have more time to build a portfolio. I am not sure yet what area I would like to pursue but I am going to keep my options opened as much as possible. Again, thank you very much!

I'm glad I could help! Sounds like you will really enjoy scientific illustration.

I think the best way to find out what the illustrators in the field is doing is first find out what you like. Scientific illustration is a broad broad field! That way you know who to narrow down to-say for example if you like biochemistry and molecular art, I'll be happy to give you few contacts of my colleagues who specialize in it. I think it'll be easier for you to come up with questions for them because you know about the subject matter and are interested in the area already. If that's not the right area for you, no problem! There are many many fields in the natural sciences.

Another option that might work is to start a sketchbook and start drawing and find out what you enjoy doing the best: Birds, plants, insects, fossils...or more conceptual like ecological pieces and conceptual art that teaches a complex story. Also, find out what tools you like to create your artwork: watercolor, pen/ink, pencil, color pencil, photoshop etc etc. You can always change your mind, but it just helps tremendously to have a starting point.

If going to grad school or med school feels right for you, go for it! Many of our members have post graduate degrees that may or may not relate to the subject matter of the illustration. Don't feel like changing your plan is a bad idea. I think college is the time to explore and find out things that you really enjoy doing. I'm glad to hear you are keeping your mind open for different options.

Actually, training for science may help you with your illustrations because you actually know what you are looking at. That actually sets you apart from other 'general' artists/illustrators. Communication with researchers and professors is an important aspect to our field, and I think your training in science will help you communicate better with the scientists to create work that will be most useful to them.

You probably considered this also, but you can finish your biochemistry degree then take few art classes at a community college or take workshops. Like you said, keep your options open and keep focused on your interests. I believe that once you know what you want, how to get what you want starts to become more and more clear.

If you need help picking out art courses and working on your portfolio, let me know anytime. Either myself or another GNSI member will be more than happy to work with you.

Good luck!

Ikumi

Hello Ikumi,

From my experience in previous art classes I have taken, I really enjoyed figure drawing. I have been fascinated by the human body for a very long time now. I love thinking about the human body from an artistic perspective and also a scientific perspectice and I think that is how I found myself interested in going to medical school. I noticed that most medical illustrators have been biology majors. I also have not taken anatomy and physiology. These are classes that are offered separately at my school and are not offered every semester. I am hoping that I may be able to take anatomy before I graduate. 

I really enjoy working with chalk, so that includes pastels, charcoal and I use the pencil a lot. I have taken a painting class before and because of my lack of experience with the brush I had a very difficult time in the beginning, but I learned a lot of valuable skills from it. There are no advanced drawing classes offered in the fall therefore I was thinking about taking an advanced painting class. I realize that it will be more challenging for me but I think it will be a valuable experience.

I have had a lot of research experience as an undergrad and I am currently doing a research project here at a Merck site in Rahway NJ. You said in the previous email that other scientific illustrators have graduate degrees in other fields. I was therefore wondering, if I am interested in medical illustration, or that of people and animals, would it still be okay to go to medical school even though the end goal is not to be a doctor?

Thank you again, very much for your time. I really appreciate it!

I love figure drawing too. Anatomy will really help you in medical illustration and figure drawing. I have a copy of "atlas of human anatomy for the artist" by Stephen Rogers Peck that I highly recommend if you don't own a copy already. It's a great combination of anatomy and art.

Painting will be a good class to take-at our school they offered figure painting, which I really wanted to take but couldn't fit in my schedule. As long as you meet the prerequisites I say go for the most advanced classes!

As for degrees, med school is pretty intense with at least 4 years of post graduate training. The doctors go through a lot to become great doctors! Earlier in the summer I went to a surgical conference and met with some surgeons who was finally done with his training and he was almost 40 years old!

The education choice is really up to you and what you really want. I don't know if you'll have time to do things like painting and illustrating outside school in those four years. Med school is geared specifically to train students to become doctors. If the goal is not to become a practicing physician, I'm not certain if med school will fit your professional needs and give you the training you want to receive. To me it sounds like someone going to film school when they don't want to make movies. Does that make sense? If it all makes sense to go to med school and it's a worthy investment of time and funding, then by all means, go for it!

I know that's a lot to consider, but it's really good that you are considering some of these things. I've taken some college courses that was clearly not what I wanted (like geography) and that was my least favorite class. Again, let me know if you have further questions or comments!

Best wishes,

Ikumi

Hello Ikumi,

I have decided that I do not necessarily want to go to medical school but instead work towards applying to graduate levels in illustration. I noticed that you are both a medical and scientific illustrator. How did you get there?

Hope things are well with you! Everyone seems to have a different way of becoming a scientific illustrator, but I'll be happy to share with you a little bit of my experiences.

I was very lucky that my undergrad offered scientific illustration as a degree at the Univ of GA. During the coursework we learned about different techniques and media (watercolor, pen/ink, photoshop etc) and techniques to illustrate specimens (entomological, ornithological, botanical, still life etc). The degree was a BFA, so we also took loads of studio courses like figure drawing and painting. What made our major unique was that we were also required to take science courses (biology, human anatomy/physiology, and comparative vertebrate anatomy). We also had to submit a thesis at the end.

To be a medical illustrator, it's really helpful to go through one of the graduate programs. It's such a specialized field that you have to know a lot to work effectively in the field. Medical illustrators can pick out illustrations that were done by an illustrator who wasn't trained in medical art. There's so many little things you have to get right in an illustration. Our main collaborators-doctors and medical researchers are very detail-oriented, and we want to make artwork that will help their work. I think same goes for scientific researchers for being very detail-oriented, but the main thing is that the medical field deals with life/death situations, so they are really extra careful.

I went through the Art as Applied to Medicine Program at Johns Hopkins. It's a 2 year program that focuses mainly on illustration techniques with few medical courses added in the curriculum. To be accepted, you have to first take all the prerequisite courses (mostly science/anatomy) and then prepare a portfolio. About half of my class had a BS degree, and half had BFA/BA degrees. Those who had the BS degree, they took extra art classes after they got their bachelors degree to prepare their portfolio.

All the programs have really nice and talented professors. If you want to go through the medical illustration route, I strongly recommend you visiting the departments with your working portfolio for a review. The professors can give you pointers and let you know what areas of your portfolio you can strengthen. Currently I think there are 4 programs that offer masters degrees in medical illustration in N. America. They all have very different concentrations-Hopkins is mostly traditional, Toronto and Georgia Health Science Univ are very 3d animation heavy, Chicago offers medical sculpture/anaplastology, etc etc. But that's just scratching the surface.

If you look on the gnsi website under courses, you should be able to find the list of schools that offer medical illustration.

There are many schools that offer certifications in scientific illustration. I didn't attend those so I can't speak for them, but they are all excellent programs and have much to offer. Some of them offer part-time status and some are full-time only.

So I have academic training in both scientific and medical illustration. After graduation, I've been trying to get as much projects as possible from all directions to keep my skills up. Since I'm self-employed, I can possibly connect with any potential client to get work in any area-which is really cool and really overwhelming at the same time. These days I mostly work on surgery textbooks, patient education brochures, and figures for academic journals. I really like surgery because I find them fascinating and there's always something new to learn. It's sort of surreal that my illustrations will be used to teach surgeons and specialists! Maybe in a few months I will talk to more veterinarians and biologists to get more work in science illustration. I really like painting birds. I also like painting vessels. Oh decisions.

If you have a specific area of scientific illustration to get into, or if you are interested in a particular program, please let me know. I'll be more than happy to connect you to the members of the guild who will be able to help you get the right information.

Hope that helps to get you thinking a little more. Let me know if you have further questions!

all the best,

Ikumi

Hello Ikumi,

Thank you again for sharing your story with me.

I took a look at the atlas you suggested and it looks amazing! I will have to get a copy for myself in the near future! I have been doing a lot of thinking and research and I am finding it hard to narrow down which pathway in scientific illustration I would like to take and I believe it is because I do not have very much exposure. What I do know at the moment is that I enjoy figure drawing. And if I were to take the medical illustration route, it looks like I may have to take addition courses to help with my portfolio? I am really interested in the more traditional approach, but I find other techiniques interesting as well!

So you recommend contacting the department? and possibly visiting as well?

I was looking around and there are some prerequisites for medical illustration that I know I may not be able to get at my school. I also decided that it is probably best if I look into applying to both scientific and medical illustration programs. 

Thank you very much for your help!

Thank you for the note! I'm sorry for the very late response. 

I looked over the admissions page on the Johns Hopkins program, and it's mostly similar to what I had to submit when I was an applicant. They really make sure your figure drawing is really top notch. So, if anything make sure your figure drawings are the best possible pieces. They also seem to prefer longer poses as opposed to short gestural poses. Be on the lookout for community figure drawing sessions. The only way to get great at figure drawing is to draw draw draw!
 
Also, get in touch with the department. Dacia is the administrative assistant, and she is absolutely delightful. She will answer any and all of your questions.  It is also totally all right to send some pieces for feedback from the professors. I still do this with some of my work. They're very generous and helpful. =) 
 
Remember, this is one of the more competitive programs. They only accept 4-6 students every year. If you don't get in, it's no problem. Actually, I didn't get in my first time. I went back and worked on my figure drawings, got some work experience, and applied again. If you talk to many Hopkins graduates, you'll often find many had to try more than once to get in.  
 
Sending my best to you!  Please keep us posted with your application process. What other programs are you applying to?
 
Ikumi

Hello Ikumi,

Thank you very much for the email! I hope all is well.

Thank you again for the feedback, it is always helpful. I am currently applying to all the other accredited programs in the U.S and in Canada. Unfortunately, I recently started working on a portfolio and I do not have quite the selection to choose from. I really wish I had more time to work on the art since most of what I have done is the science. My professors keep encouraging me to apply for this coming academic year, therefore I will give it a shot. I am also trying to figure out a plan B just in case I am not able to make it in the first time. Personally, I really feel that my artwork still needs a little more polishing up but it would not hurt to apply and see what happens :)

I am also applying for Teach For  America. When you did not make it in the first time, what did you do to get work experience and develop your drawing skills as well?

One more question. Many people keep asking me what a medical illustrator does. I know that there are a lot of things that a medical illustrator can do. What has your experience been like? I remember you said that you are mostly doing independent work?

I am currently in Toronto visiting my father. I am also planning on visiting the Biomedical Visualisation Program there. I have already contacted someone and they would love for me to stop by. I also brought my working portfolio with me.

Thank you again for your time, I really do appreciate it! And thank you for your support. I never thought I would drastically change my career path like this and I have never been more excited!

I hope you have a wonderful thanksgiving break!

 

Sounds like you are really getting the hang of the application process. That's great!  The attitude you have is really admirable.  No one knows what will happen, so why not give it a try? 
 
I had some of my classmates apply for Teach for America when I was an undergraduate student too. I'm not familiar with the particulars of the program, but it sounds like a worthy cause.  
 
While I had a year off, I did number of things. Looking back, it was really fun and a nice break from all the studying and homework.  The Hopkins Program was really intense. I always looked forward to Fridays when I can go to bed at 7:30 pm after taking the late bus home all week. Maybe that was a little much. 
 
I was very lucky since Athens, GA was a great little town with many resources. I worked as a web designer/graphic artist at a local gift store as well as did some research assistant work for a professor helping with grant applications. There was a local zoo, so I was a zookeeper in the weekends.  I also squeezed in as a teaching assistant for anatomy, so I got to dissect more cadavers. Of course, I worked on my figure drawing by finding as many sessions as possible, and getting into some classes even though I was not enrolled in the class.  There was also a natural history museum on campus, so I borrowed few things from the museum and made illustrations of the specimens--birds, skulls, insects, etc.
 
I also went to meetings: I knew about GNSI at the time, so I attended the conference and worked on some techniques and learned more about the field and tried meeting as many people as I could. Fortunately GNSI is a really welcoming group, so they answered all my questions and were really generous sharing tips about the field.
 
Medical illustrators do a variety of work. It really depends. It's a broad term. I think medical illustrators create visuals that are conduits for communication and education. In other words, we help teach medical topics by creating visuals to teach others.  We usually work with experts in the field from research, to clinic, to surgery to create accurate content for the teaching tools. 
 
I happen to love drawing and painting gross level anatomy, so that's what I mostly do.  Many others have worked exclusively in digital 3d animation and create molecular animations showing how a drug works inside a body.  Many others work to create artwork for court illustrations to teach the jury. Some even create video games to teach kids about biology.
 
The thing is, once someone finds work for you, then you slowly get specialized in that field. For example, my brain illustration lead me to an assignment, and now I'm working on two neuroanatomy/neurosurgery books.  I used to do a lot of orthopaedic surgery work too.  It's interesting to see the balance of supply and demand.  We joke about how we all get dragged back into plastic surgery. 
 
Toronto program is really great.  They are definitely more 3d animation/interactive oriented. I love the professors there--please send Nick, Marc, Michael, and Margot my regards. Maybe they remember me. =) They'll be more than happy to help you I'm sure. Please let me know how it goes!  I think you'll get a feel for what's a good fit for you by visiting the departments.
 
All the best,
 
Ikumi

Dear Ikumi,

I hope all is well! It has been a while since I was able to shoot you an email! A lot has happened between now and the last time I emailed you.

As you may remember, last semester I was working with an art professor helping me build my portfolio. It was quite challenging getting back into the rhythm of creating finished pieces of work since I had not done so in a while. I managed to come up with a good collection by the end of the semester. I was missing a few pieces required for John's Hopkins so I decided not to apply there :( as they have an earlier deadline.

And then the unexpected happened. I am not an official art student at my school and I did not know that at the end of the semester, all the drawers would be cleared out. I left my entire portfolio in a labelled drawer but when I came back from winter break, the drawer had been emptied out! I was hoping that they had placed it my portfolio some where else but a professor told me that everything that was left had been removed for recycling. He even directed me to a nearby recycling place and for sure I found one of my drawings that had been picked out. It was very upsetting but finding that one drawing there brought me some closure otherwise I was going to be wondering what had happened to my work. Unfortunately, I had no digital versions of my portfolio... I cried. I cried a lot because the deadline for submitting my work was in two weeks when I found out. I told my adviser and he just said to me that I needed to rebuild that portfolio! I had come to the conclusion that it was impossible, but it was definitely worth the shot!

I asked all of my professors for permission not to do homework for a week and a half, although, I was going to class. My art adviser thought it would be beneficial to work on things I know how to do best and so I worked on a lot of portraits of my friends. My self portrait was the first drawing I worked on. I worked on each drawing one at a time and I tried not to rush it, but enjoy the process nonetheless. When my time was up, I submitted whatever I had. To cut a long story short. I applied to Georgia Health Sciences, UIC and Toronto. I got two interviews from UIC and Toronto and one acceptance from UIC :D. Words cannot express how HAPPY I am!! I am more than happy that even after all that happened, I can still pursue my dream career! Thank you very much for all of your help and input! I will be in touch as always!

Thank you!

You are SO super awesome. Congratulations on your acceptance to UIC! Now the programs are going to be fighting over you.

I'm so sorry that you lost your portfolio! That happened to me once. Once upon a time I had a nicer portfolio holder that I kept all my figure drawings and one day...gone. But looking back it probably was a good thing because, like you, I had to work extra to get my portfolio up to speed and incentives like that will improve your draftsmanship a lot.

I snuck into figure drawing classes I wasn't enrolled in (oops!) and went to some local sessions too. I wish I thought of doing portraits of my friends.

Definitely keep in touch and I would love to know what you work on in the grad program! I can probably introduce you to awesome illustrators in Toronto and Chicago so you can learn from them also. Maybe we'll meet in person in a future AMI meeting.

All the best,

Ikumi

Hello Ikumi,

Thank you for the email! I apologise for the late response. I have officially graduated from college and now looking around for a part-time summer job. I am also looking into possibly taking a class or two over the summer to expose myself to some Graphic Design since I have no experience in that. Thank you very much for all of your help and encouragement! I do hope to meet you in the future and I would love to meet more illustrators. I hope that while I am in  the program I can learn more about what I would love to do afterwards. I hope you have a wonderful week and I will be sure to keep in touch!

Hi, I read this message thread and it was very informative. I was wondering if I could email either one of you with some questions that I have regarding medical illustration.