An Evolving Career in Scientific Illustration: Part II
This article appears in the 2016 no.1 Journal of Natural Science Illustration
— Jessica Hsiung
You may remember my first installment (JNSI Journal 2013 no.1): after attending the GNSI Summer Workshop at Pierce Cedar Creek Institute in Hastings, MI, I realized Science Illustration was the career for me. I finished my undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto, and enrolled in the Science illustration program at Monterey Bay. Now on to Part II!
After my time in the Science Illustration program in Monterey Bay, California, I completed two internships—one in the Herpetology Department at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada, and the other in the Entomology Lab at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. At the same time, I worked on a project illustrating an article on cardiovascular health associated with Scientific American, and continued to accept commissions and develop my portfolio. That summer, I decided to try to pursue illustrating science in the even more specialized field of medical art. I ended up applying to the MSc in Medical Art program at the University of Dundee, Scotland, after researching a number of schools around the world. With a renowned Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, the University of Dundee boasted a Queen’s Anniversary prize for Higher Education—what better opportunity to study and travel to the U.K.? Before I knew it, I was accepted and I was flying across The Pond to my new home for a year.
Arriving in Dundee, I could see how different it was from the North American landscape I was accustomed to. Older, narrower cobblestone streets, set against a backdrop of the River Tay, Dundee is historically rich and charming. Bonus points also for being Scotland’s sunniest city! Though nothing like the gargantuan university blended into the city where I did my undergrad, Dundee’s university campus exuded a warm feeling of community. It was active, social and had a large study-friendly library; I was looking forward to my year in this atmosphere.
The Medical Art program was 12 months long, with overlapping classes with the MSc Forensic Art and MSc Forensic Facial Identification studies. This year there were a total of 13 students, with 6 in the Medical Art program, led by coordinators and instructors Caroline Erolin for the Medicals, and Dr. Christopher Rynn for the Forensics.
The first semester was comprised of learning head and neck anatomy. The class was assigned a human cadaver to study and on which to perform dissections. The cadavers at the University of Dundee are embalmed using Thiel, a soft-fix method of embalming that preserves the natural colour and feel of the body. This was especially useful for drawing accurately.
There were also life-drawing classes focusing on écorché techniques (a painting or sculpture of a human figure with the skin removed to display the musculature), with critiques in the studio for helpful feedback on our drawing skills and accurate placement and rendering of the bones and muscles.
The second semester had us moving onto postcranial anatomy and histology, producing illustrations reflecting our learning. There was also a medical legal ethics unit, with a rather nerve-racking mock trial evaluation. During this time, we started making visits to the nearby Ninewells Medical School and Teaching Hospital to watch surgeries in the Ear Nose Throat (ENT) Department. From those visits, we were expected to make sketches in the operating room and then produce a final surgical sequence on the procedure of our choice. Visiting the hospital was personally my favourite part of the program, as we were able to change into scrubs, interact with patients and watch how the surgeons work their magic. The medical staff was exceedingly kind and patient, letting us take reference photos and pausing at times to point out structures or explain what they were doing. I was also able to get in touch with surgeons in other departments and watch a few surgeries there.
Digital techniques were a significant part of the curriculum. Assignments were given to create illustrations of a scapula and surgical instrument using digital painting in Adobe® Photoshop® and Illustrator® respectively, while also creating other works to focus on how to communicate information to general audiences vs. specialists. We were also given tutorials in the 3D modeling programs ZBrush®, Maya® and Freeform®, with Freeform being something especially novel to me, as it used a haptic device* to sculpt the virtual clay on the screen, allowing me to feel the pressure and movements of the sculpting tools in the materials. Learning how to generate CT (computerized tomography) reconstructions (generating 3D models from 2D scans and x-ray images of the body) and the basics of studio photography were also part of our training.
The final component of the program was working independently on a thesis project in the third semester. I chose to create an interactive iBook with 3D animation aimed at helping patients understand the Whipple Operation, a major procedure involving the removal of pancreatic tumours. This operation has a high morbidity rate and my aim was to replace existing text-only patient resources with a more engaging and visually informative, all-in-one package that would hopefully improve the patient experience and lower healthcare costs. It was also my goal to learn how to model and animate in 3D using the ZBrush, Maya and Adobe After Effects® programs, while creating something that would also have a positive real-life impact.
I proposed my idea to the general Hepatobiliary surgeon at Ninewells Hospital, Dr. Christoph Kulli, and he was excited about adopting this new format for his patients. There were many meetings and talks between us about how to organize the content, and he also arranged for me to attend a Whipple operation in the hospital to take reference photos and get a better idea of the procedure.
We were given 3 months to complete the project, which culminated in a Masters Exhibition. Other classmates chose a variety of topics and ways to present them, including sculpture, illustrated books, 3D animation and interactive web catalogues. I am immensely thankful to have had the guidance of animation guru Sean Yu, who was unendingly patient with me and answered all my animation questions. To make a full-blown iBook and animation without ever having learned how to make either before (while meeting deadlines!) is challenging indeed, and the support I received from the university and hospital staff to help me achieve this was incredibly encouraging. At the moment, my iBook is pending approval with the National Health System for future use in the hospital.
Of course during the time that I could afford a break from studying, I tried to see as much of Scotland as I could. Most of the time I explored Dundee or took short day trips to the surrounding towns and cities, such as St. Andrew’s, Broughty Ferry and Arbroath, and slightly longer ones to Edinburgh and Aberdeen. I also jumped at the chance to go on a university-planned bus tour to Loch Ness and the Highlands, and accomplished my dream of meeting a hairy cow.
Overall, my year in Dundee was a whirlwind experience and I learned more than I ever thought I was capable of. It was full of challenges and new experiences, and I met people from all over the world who shared my love of art and science. I am back home in Toronto now, continuing to build my skills in 3D animation, and excited for what my next adventure will be.
*haptic denotes a computer technology that allows one to feel tactile feedback while sculpting in the computer. It does this by measuring the force applied by the user on the pen-like sculpting tool. (Yes, we had to look this up.)
Figure 01: Jessica and family attending her Masters graduation at University of Dundee in November 2015
Figure 02: Facial reconstruction using clay and plasticine on a skull model, showing facial muscles in angry expression, as well as facial nerves, © 2015 Jessica Hsiung
Figure 03: human right femur, graphite on paper, © 2015 Jessica Hsiung
Figure 04: Title page for chapter on the surgical procedure Partial Parotidectomy, with text and illustrations intended for specialists. (Photo taken at Ninewells Hospital, Dundee). Image courtesy of Ninewells Teaching Hospital & Medical School, Dundee)
Figure 05: Nerves and tendons of the hand, done in Adobe Photoshop®, © 2015 Jessica Hsiung
Figure 06: CT reconstruction stills of a female torso, generated from data sets (www.osirix-viewer.com/datasets) using InVesalius®, ZBrush® and Freeform®, © 2015 Jessica Hsiung
Figure 07: Right posterior scapula, done in Adobe Photoshop®, © 2015 Jessica Hsiung
Figure 08: Chiropody pliers done in Adobe Illustrator®, © 2015 Jessica Hsiung
Figure 09: Broughty Castle on the banks of the river Tay, Broughty Ferry, Dundee, © 2015 Jessica Hsiung