Connecting Science and Art takes a special talent.
I saw the orange glow of an ethidium bromide stained DNA band on a UV trans-illuminator for the first time while on a school trip. The result of this was that I fell in love with the idea of fundamental sciences, that led me towards a PhD in molecular biology. During the PhD however, I realized that my interests lay beyond the bench, and I pivoted and started working as a scientific illustrator. I began to appreciate the importance of images in many areas, including science communication, peer to peer discussions and in science pedagogy.
I will share some of my favourite examples of my own work to demonstrate what
science illustration and visualization can bring to the scientific enterprise.
of being a smarty pants
my first year in college, a teacher asked the class to illustrate eye
development in amphibians. Instead of copying the standard text book diagrams,
I read the chapter and interpreted the images myself in light of what I had
read. I found that some stages were described in the text, but were not
represented as images in the figure. I interpolated those stages visually based
on the reference diagrams and the text, and my teacher gave me a 100% score!
now understand that what I did was very close to science visualization, that
is, I attempted to create an image based on the information available.
than ten years later, I now spend a lot of my time making images for scientists,
or thinking about the kind of images that are needed for a particular subject
matter and audience. I will share three examples of science inspired artwork
and illustrations that were created for different purposes.
of cargo transport on microtubules
the moment, I work in a cytoskeleton lab, where my work involves making images
for an illustrated book on how animals change color. One of the mechanisms for
quick color change in animals is the transport of pigment filled granules
across microtubules, the railway tracks inside the cell. While most text book
diagrams show microtubules as straight tubes that emerge from structures around
the nucleus, the microscopy data tells a different story. Microtubules are
curved and jumbled, and even at some points bundled. I wanted to depict this in
an abstract composition.
trying to draw microtubules, it occurred to me that in some cases, the
microtubules had to be in close
proximity to each other. I wondered how the large cargo of pigment filled
granules would move across microtubules in these dense spaces. What happens if
the cargo is too big and gets stuck at a physical obstruction like another microtubule? Does the cargo fall off or does the
gets pushed away to allow for transport, or can the cargo squeeze and be pushed
through? Or is the obstructing microtubule severed to make space for it and
then repaired, or does the cargo change its position on the microtubule to go
around the physical obstruction, or does some other molecule come and mediate
this whole process in any other way?
these questions came up while trying to draw an abstract picture of microtubules, and shows how simply
thinking about how to draw something can lead to a new line of inquiry for a
of the form of the cell
another project, I asked the question: what is a cell? I looked for answers talking
to science teachers, and it often came
up that the definitions of the cell and the corresponding imagery in textbooks are often incomplete. Teachers shared
with me how students perceive cell as a flat object on which different
organelles and structures are just lying around.
prompted me to create a series of short booklets  where
I asked some fundamental questions about the cell.
this particular work, I wanted to convey the very simple concept that a cell is
defined by volume. In spite of being limited
by the 2D nature of the drawing sheet, I devised a visual analogy. I compared
the cell to an orange. As I sliced up an orange, I also sliced up a Tetrahymena
my own surprise the intended audience – science enthusiasts from across age
groups (trained and untrained) – were able to understand the concept, more
easily that I had thought.They were able to distinguish the distribution of
were different in different depths, and the shape of the
cell changed from top to bottom. Some figured out the polarity of the cell.
Some were even able to identify and predict relationships between organelles.
For example they noticed how mitochondria (energy making organelles) was
closely related to periphery of the cell, where cilia, the structures that
drives the motion of the cell, are located.
illustrates how creative visuals can create comprehension based on visual
perception, enabling pedagogical motives.
of a breathing cell
non-scientific audience is most likely to identify a cell as a circular shape
containing two organelles: the mitochondria and the nucleus. In this project, I
wanted to propose a more updated impression of a cell. I created an intricate
drawing of the cell, using pen on paper and converted that to an anaglyph. I
wanted to engage the audience through their red-cyan glasses. Through this
drawing, people travel from the outside to the inside of the cell, as it
responds to a signal by secreting a protein. The anaglyph itself generates the
illusion of depth and motion. By combining a dynamic process into a single
image, I was also able to convey the sense of the dynamic nature of the cell.
As I had hoped, the audience, ranging from members of public, to school students to scientists, found it enjoyable and visually engaging. It was gratifying to see how this piece initiated interest and sparked conversation.
I firmly believe that my art makes science more accessible and understandable to everyone. I hope to make more images that convey the sense of biology to scientists and students, and the joy of science to everyone.
Ipsa Jain is currently a post doctoral fellow at Institute for Stem Cell Science and Regenerative Medicine, Bangalore, India. She also runs a freelance illustration service under the brand Ipsawonders. She seeks beauty in science and surroundings. When not drawing for work, she is listening to a song on repeat and making marks on paper.