This past summer, I attended a super informative workshop at a science conference on how to make your PowerPoint presentation better with a few design tips and tricks. I also had the pleasure to meet with Ikumi Kayama, the scientific illustrator who led the workshop, and ask her a few questions about how she got into this field and what she does with her skill set.
Hold on. Art and science, together?
If you're like me, ever since you started in a STEM field, you've probably heard a few jokes about how you'll never use an entire half of your brain. Har har. Before I get into the interview, I want to explore why art and science are seemingly 'at odds' in mainstream culture a lot of the time. Let me know what YOU think in the comments!
Before graduate school, I always felt like if I chose to go into science, I was going to have to give up that part of me that loves to create, explore, or think abstractly. Turns out, it's been just the opposite really. :)
The more I hang out with my friends that are 'science-y' by nature, the more I realize they actually have a TON of qualities in common with my 'artsy' friends. And by 'artsy', I guess I'm thinking about those who set the latest clothing trend, those who add all the awesome things to the DIY boards on Pinterest, or those who can always be found supporting the local art scene in their free time for example. And, these things are really just a few of the surface deep observations I can think of. When I really think about how I would describe my friends that identify with being a bit more 'artsy', I think of how they are always the ones to look at a situation or conversation from multiple different perspectives before deciding how they feel about it. If they come across a problem, they don't try the first solution that comes to mind once and then give up if it doesn't work. They keep trying until they've figured it out. They're the thinkers, the problem-solvers, the innovators.
Wait a sec. Those qualities sound pretty science-y, yeah? Exactly.
Maybe it used to be that in order to become a scientist, you had to approach a problem using concrete thoughts based on previous data, but that's just not really the case anymore. The problems of this generation have proven to be extremely complex. No single discipline is going to find a solution by themselves. Scientists are collaborating more than ever, making it harder to assign prestigious awards such as the Nobel Prize, and this is creating a need for interdisciplinary PhD programs that focus on training scientists to not only conduct their research across multiple fields, but communicate their findings to other fields as well, including business or policy for example.
Ikumi Kayama is one such interdisciplinary communicator, and she uses scientific illustration to communicate. What is scientific illustration? How do you get into a field like that? What can you do with it? What are some challenges scientific illustrators run in to? Ikumi was kind enough to answer these, and more, after her workshop on PowerPoint Design Tricks and Tips (click here for a summary of that workshop).
1. What is ‘Scientific Illustration’?
"Scientific illustration brings science to life and makes abstract concepts relevant and approachable. Scientific illustration is a specialized drawing created by a trained illustrator who is knowledgeable in both the arts and the sciences. It is scientifically accurate, detailed, and educational, and can be found in textbooks, journals, websites, and posters. It can be very simple and straightforward or very complex and theoretical.
A scientific illustrator uses data and references and determines what information needs to be shown for the appropriate audience. Unlike a photograph, the illustrator can make a conscious decision about what to include and emphasize in each image. Illustration can show anything the illustrator can imagine from the molecules to the universe. There is a lot of research and fact checking involved in every illustration."
2. How did you get into this field?
"I always loved to draw since I was very young. When I moved to the US from Japan when I was seven years old, drawing felt like the only voice I had. Observing that the pictures have a power to instantly connect people from different backgrounds, I always thought there was something very special in visual communication.
Even though my classmates and teachers told me that art is not a good field to make a career our of, I was determined to be a professional artist. When I saw the Lion King, I decided that I was going to be a Disney animator. While in high school, I wrote to the Walt Disney Animation Studios and told them about my plans of working for them when I was finished with college. They graciously wrote back and gave me some tips and pointers to become a great animator. Unfortunately, their traditional animation studio closed just as I was finishing my first semester at the University of Georgia.
"We got to take major level science classes and studio art classes. In our scientific illustration courses, we worked with scientists, museum curators, and professors to create illustrations using a variety of techniques such as pen and ink, watercolor, and digital media."
The University of Georgia happened to be one of the few schools in the country that offered scientific illustration as a major. We got to take major level science classes and studio art classes. In our scientific illustration courses, we worked with scientists, museum curators, and professors to create illustrations using a variety of techniques such as pen and ink, watercolor, and digital media. I instantly fell in love with the field and loved that I could help others using my artistic skills.
I went on to study Medical Illustration at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. There, I took anatomy with the medical students, sketched in the operation room, and worked with world-class researchers to create visuals that share and teach scientific concepts and ideas effectively."
3. What kinds of media do you use to create your illustrations?
"I use watercolor, pen and ink, graphite (pencil), and digital media including Adobe Illustrator/Photoshop and various 3D software. My main goal for all of my illustrations is to get the viewers curious and excited about the science. The final look of the illustration depends on what styles the scientist or the editor are looking for.
"My main goal for all of my illustrations is to get the viewers curious and
Every single illustration that I do starts with a pencil sketch. I want the ideas and concepts to be very fluid and organic so that the finished illustration is lively, approachable, and relevant to the viewer. Using pencil for sketching also makes updates and corrections easier to make. We go through multiple revisions to make sure the illustrations are scientifically accurate and educational."
4. How did you come to start Studio Kayama?
"When I was a student, I really enjoyed working directly with researchers, professors, and surgeons. I loved seeing the results of my illustration contributing to their work. After I graduated with a master's degree in medical illustration, I sent out my portfolio and resumes to as many schools and publishers as I could, and I was able to get some textbook projects right after graduation.
Since then, I've been working with various researchers and publishers working on creating illustrations for PowerPoint presentations, figures and covers for journals and textbooks. I especially love illustrations for science outreach--I love seeing light bulbs turning on over people's heads when they see a picture that makes sense to them."
5. What are some of the things Studio Kayama offers?
"Studio Kayama offers one-stop, custom, visual creation services for researchers, professors, teachers, and editors. I will work with them from the first sketch to the final render to make sure the illustration fits their needs. After completion of the illustration, we format the illustration so that it can go straight to the web designer, publisher, poster, or into a PowerPoint presentation. Our specialties include journal and textbook figures and covers, posters, educational brochures, PowerPoint slides, and multimedia tools. We also offer web design and PowerPoint design help.
What makes Studio Kayama unique is that we really cater to the needs of the scientists. Studio Kayama guarantees the scientific accuracy of the illustrations. To save time and to make sure we meet deadlines, we always ask the scientist and their team to supply us with any corrections/updates and additional references to ensure accuracy. In addition, because of the rate of new discoveries being made, we guarantee that the artwork will be at the cutting edge of scientific research for 6 months or 180 days. If a new study is published that would require changes to the artwork, we will make the updates.
Studio Kayama also offers various training and consulting services including seminars and workshops covering topics in visual communication. The most popular ones are in PowerPoint design for scientists, Photoshop for scientists, and Photoshop for illustrators. We also visit local high schools regularly to talk about the field of scientific illustration as part of STEM, and do demonstrations."
6. How do you find scientists in need of your illustrations?
"That's a great question! Many scientists find my website and contact me. I also find potential collaborators at conferences and local interest groups.
Finding the right illustrator for their work is a big problem for many researchers. Many try to do the drawings themselves. The truth is that many scientists are not aware of custom scientific illustration services that are available to them. Some institutions have staff illustrators, but more and more organizations are turning to small illustration companies like Studio Kayama. That's part of the reason why organizations often invite me to do seminars and workshops on visual communication."
7. What are some of the challenges you have encountered bridging the fields of design and science?
"It is always fascinating to me how different individuals see the same artwork differently. The biggest challenge is to create an illustration where the majority of viewers will get the same idea from seeing the same illustration. There are many rules about scientific visualization that are different from the classic art rules. For example, I had a vague idea of CPK coloring system when I was a student, but wasn't aware that they were standardized colors. The colors were assumed, but I wasn't sure why until I did some research. Also, many scientific disciplines have their own style of illustrations they use. Some prefer black and white line illustrations, and some prefer a very stylized color illustration."
8. Would you consider yourself a ‘science communicator’?
"In a way, yes. I started out as an artist, then became a scientific illustrator, then realized that researchers needed help explaining their work and expressing the value of what they do. I help them by creating custom illustrations and help design PowerPoint slides and graphs. I did not start out to become a scientific communicator, but in my quest to use my skills and experience to help others communicate better, I've become an expert scientific communicator."
9. What advice do you have for students interested in science communication?
"I'd tell them that science communication is getting more and more important as scientific research gets more specialized. It's always surprising how little communication happens between different departments in the same organization. At ASMS, I kept hearing that mass spectrometrists are interdisciplinary and that they bridge the gap between different areas of study, and I believe scientific illustration is similar in that regard.
Scientific communication comes in different shapes and sizes. Some specialize in speaking, some in visuals, and some in writing. It is important to place your interest and skills so you can help others.
For those interested in scientific illustration, the first thing I tell them is to draw, draw, draw. It's amazing how much more you see once you draw something from life. Try to draw from the real thing instead of from a photo or a video. If you find something you like, keep drawing. Someone once said that every artist has about 200 bad artworks in them, so it's best to get them out of the system early. Ask a lot of questions, and take a lot of notes. Go to different museums and draw. Then once you have a good collection of illustrations, go and see a scientist whose work interests you and keep drawing."
"Someone once said that every artist has 200 bad artworks in them, so it's best to get them out of the system early. Ask a lot of questions, and take a lot of notes. "
Thank you so much Ikumi for your time and your great responses!
People have been illustrating science since the beginning. It's just another reason it's often said, "a picture is worth a thousand words". Combining the fields of art and science is key to our ability to fully understand the complex challenges in our near future. I think cross-disciplinary communication is not only advantageous, but necessary. What do you think?
Welcome to Think Like a Postdoc. If you're a fan of science as much as I am, and/or are curious about getting a degree in a STEM field, or pursuing an interdisciplinary graduate degree (all from the perspective of a graduate student), then you're in the right place. Think Like a Postdoc also includes posts about my current lab and field research, including analytical chemistry, Arctic biogeochemistry, and energy & environmental policy. Comments and questions are always welcomed. And please tell me what you want to hear about next!
Questions to Ask Before Choosing Grad Program
First Semester of Grad School
Field Work in Alaska
Science Conference Dos and Don'ts
Women in STEM Series
Things I've Learned in Grad School Series
Blogs I Follow
Mass Spectrometry Blog
The Grad Student Way
Anthony's Science Blog
The Thesis Whisperer
Fossils and Shit
Science Communication Breakdown
Science Communication Media
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.