An informational interview with Indiabioscience

Indiabioscience has been conducting a series of informational interviews with several science professionals. This serves as a useful resource for science students and graduates for career planning.

Lakshmi Ganesan from Indiabioscience invited me to talk about science illustration. I am sharing the link to the original podcast and chunks of the transcript below. Hoping that some of you would find it useful.

https://indiabioscience.org/indiabiospeaks/crafting-your-career-episode-6-informational-interview-with-ipsa-jain-science-illustration

Transcript (abridged, not edited)

Lakshmi Ganesan 0:01 
….
Ipsa is a great friend and a wonderfully talented illustrator who has boldly taken the path less traveled. Ipsa has her PhD from the Indian Institute of Science, where she worked on cancer cell migration and drug resistance. She then became a freelance writer and illustrator at Club SciWri. She’s currently a postdoctoral fellow at inSTEM, Bangalore, where she creates stylized representations of biology in the form of popular science books to generate public interest in science.

Hello Ipsa, thanks for joining us. Can you tell us a bit about your current projects? And how did you get here? 

Ipsa Jain 1:25 
Hello Lakshmi thanks for inviting me here. Currently I am a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Minhaj Sirajuddin at inSTEM Bangalore. And with him, we are together trying to create a popular science book using illustrations as the medium of science storytelling, where we are talking about the science of color and color change in animals.

I also have my own freelancing brand called Ipsa wonders, where I work with scientists, book publishers, and other kinds of clients to create work that is inspired by science.

Somewhere along my PhD, I realized that I am more interested in science communication. And while thinking about what are the kinds of things I would like to do, and I can do, I realized that visual modes of communication were more appealing to me.

Lakshmi Ganesan 0:01 
….
We have with us in the studio Ipsa Jain. Ipsa is a great friend and a wonderfully talented illustrator who has boldly taken the path less traveled. Ipsa has her PhD from the Indian Institute of Science, where she worked on cancer cell migration and drug resistance. She then became a freelance writer and illustrator at Club SciWri. She’s currently a postdoctoral fellow at inSTEM, Bangalore, where she creates stylized representations of biology in the form of popular science books to generate public interest in science.

Hello Ipsa, thanks for joining us. Can you tell us a bit about your current projects? And how did you get here? 

Ipsa Jain 1:25 
Hello Lakshmi thanks for inviting me here. Currently I am a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Minhaj Sirajuddin at inSTEM Bangalore. And with him, we are together trying to create a popular science book using illustrations as the medium of science storytelling, where we are talking about the science of color and color change in animals.

I also have my own freelancing brand called Ipsa wonders, where I work with scientists, book publishers, and other kinds of clients to create work that is inspired by science.

Somewhere along my PhD, I realised that I am more interested in science communication. And while thinking about what are the kinds of things I would like to do, and I can do, I realised that visual modes of communication were more appealing to me.

Lakshmi Ganesan 2:46 
That’s a really unique story. I would like to begin by asking you what In your opinion, are the signs and symptoms of someone that could become a science illustrator? 

Ipsa Jain 2:58 
One needs to be a visual thinker. Although I believe that people who are verbal thinkers can also acquire this quality. If you are someone who doodles a lot and scribbles a lot, you’re a visual thinker. While the processes are being described in a lecture or a talk, and you are there imagining those molecules in the cellular landscape, doing their bit, you are a visual thinker.

Lakshmi Ganesan 3:46 
Ipsa I would like to know what are your primary deliverables or outcomes of work as an illustrator? 

Ipsa Jain 3:54 
For the projects in the lab, the book would be the ultimate outcome. Under the brand of Ipsa Wonders, I create editorial illustrations for web pages, for blogs, schematics, and graphical abstracts for scientific papers and I also create some of my own products, which include art prints, notebooks, calendars, short stories, storyboards, and so on. 

Lakshmi Ganeshan
Ipsa, before we delve deeper into this fascinating world of yours, would you please explain to our listeners the difference between science illustration and scientific illustrations?

Ipsa Jain

Scientific illustration, is an accurate and comprehensive representation of the molecules or the process that you’re describing. It involves reading up the literature, interacting with experts, and trying to figure out the best way to put all of that together in one image. Science illustration would include graphical abstracts, schematic, flows of processes, diagrams, and so on.

I would also like to include sci art as one of the categories, which is more evocative and expression-based artwork that is inspired by science, but is not necessarily made for communicating science.

With respect to scientific illustration, I would like to talk about the work of David Goodsell. He creates these detailed drawings of cellular processes, those drawings are hand drawn, and they incorporate details in terms of number of molecules, orientations of molecules, their placement within the cell, their interaction with other molecules, and so on. And why his work is really brilliant is because it also feeds back into science. His work has led to correction in several cases, hypothesis building, and asking new questions. So scientific illustration, is actually not only meant for education or communicating science, but it’s also a tool in the advancement of science itself.

Lakshmi Ganesan 6:17 
Ipsa now I’m really curious to know, since you do both science and scientific illustrations, what is your process of storytelling? For example, for science illustration, how do you simplify without dumbing things down? in scientific illustrations? Where do you limit the detail? 

Ipsa Jain 6:52 


For science illustration, you really need to know your intended message and you need to know your audience. Whether you’re working for a student audience, whether you’re designing for a general public audience, or you’re designing for scientific peer audience. Your audience defines the level of details that are needed, and what you need to highlight. Then you use design elements to highlight and hide based on the need.

In terms of scientific illustration, you really need to know the literature, and you have to talk to the experts in the field. Often in such a project, you will be working with a team of scientists, and you have to carefully choose what shows up. And what is something that can be can be seen after you spend a little more time with it and things that don’t show up at all.

I’ll share an example. Suppose I was describing the cellular process, where the cell size as well as the nucleus to cytoplasm ratio changes, which one do you highlight? The scientific team will provide you with feedback, and then you make your choice. So the contrast between cell boundaries and the nuclear boundaries can be used to define whether the audience perceives the change in cell size first, or the change in nuclear-cytoplasm ratio. There are also limitations to the medium. If I were making a 2D drawing of the said process, I perhaps cannot show all cells that are there. So I have to arrive at an optimal balance while maintaining accuracy, but also comprehension. If I crowd the drawing with too many cells, that information of change in size and nuclear to cytoplasm ratio would be lost. While accuracy is needed, the ultimate intention for the work is to communicate. So the end product has to arrive at that balance, which can be done based on the feedback from the scientific team and your own input. So it’s a creative process. 


Lakshmi Ganesan 12:39 
Ipsa, thanks for explaining the kind of rigour that goes into the process of creating both science and scientific illustrations, how important they are, in being a part of creation of science itself. It seems to me that science and art does seem like a great marriage. If you agree with me, how much would you credit your initial years of training in sciences to where you are? Can someone do without it? Or vice versa? How will someone that has training in the arts apply art to science with flair. 

Ipsa Jain 13:11 
So during the initial years speaking as a biologist, we draw diagrams, a lot of them. So drawing is something that’s part of a training itself. So to do it later, also becomes easier. However, I think all kinds of scientists can practice all kinds of art forms, whether it be dance, music, theatre, what have you, and they could choose to talk about science using these mediums. Though I also think that there is also a place for art, which has roots in science, but it’s not necessarily meant for science communication, but purely as evocative art itself. Likewise, I think, people who are trained in arts can read up science or collaborate with scientists to create works that are inspired by science. I’ll share an example, a dear friend of mine, created this performance piece around the ecology of figs, which was presented at a conference in Bangalore. She interacted with scientists and read up science books. Interestingly, in this piece, the performers on the stage were also scientists. So this is an interesting collaboration, where an artist is making scientists move and speak the story of science.



Lakshmi Ganesan 15:56 
How then would a science graduate train themselves? What tools are available? What skills need be acquired?

Ipsa Jain 16:07 
The easiest way would be to enroll at an illustration or a design course at an institute. However, I did not choose that particular path. There are also online courses available for illustration, and design and art on platforms like edX and Coursera which one could take. You could learn hand-based drawing, which is, I think, very important for ideation of a project that you will end up doing digitally later. And then learn digital tools like Illustrator and Photoshop, maybe some animation and 3D model generating tools. 

You have to practice every day to learn and compensate for the lack of a degree. And then you need to look at work of people like Janet Iwasa, David Goodsell, Graham Johnson, Drew Barry, and others that are out there and study how they have drawn their lines, how have they drawn their forms? How have they applied color, how have they shown motion, and as much as possible, volunteer initially, and make work that is out there, so that people get to notice your work. Create a portfolio and then exhibit and share it in whichever way possible. In my own story, I got the chance to exhibit my work at a student festival at Indian Institute of Science. That festival was a huge crowd puller, and a lot of people noticed my work, which then even lead to projects later. I would also suggest that you start looking for opportunities around you.

Lakshmi Ganesan 18:04 
Ipsa, finally, I would like to ask you what are the words of career wisdom that you could give someone that’s looking for a career as an illustrator. 

Ipsa Jain 18:14 
The first one would be to practice hard, you will see that with practice your work improves within months. Talk to a lot of people. Tell them about the work you do and the kind of work you want to do. You never know how that will take the shape of an opportunity. Observe and learn from other people’s work. And if you can find a natural history illustrator or a scientific illustrator around you or online and connect with them, mail them, message them, ask them about their work, their creative process and learn as much as you can. The other thing would be to look for opportunities around you. If you are in a campus. There’s a conference happening, maybe design the poster for them. You are in a lab and there’s a paper going out design the graphical abstract for them. Do that for your neighbouring lab, make more work and soon you will start building a good body of work and people will take notice and you will get more work. 

Lakshmi Ganesan 19:21 
Thank you for sharing your journey and experience. I do feel inspired already to take a pen and paper and drawing something really interesting and cool. 

Interview by Lakshmi Ganesan, Sound recording and editing by Manoj.

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