The Science of Sustainability

Illustrating Science: Translating Knowledge Into Pictures

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Blood vessel growth in a healthy (left) and diseased (right) eye - Allison Bruce

Blood vessel growth in a healthy (left) and diseased (right) eye - Allison Bruce

Allison Bruce has a wonderful job: she spends all day making pictures for scientists.

Bruce started out in science herself, earning a chemistry degree from UC Davis. After college, she worked in an environmental lab, but she didn't enjoy it and turned to art classes "to keep from losing my mind," she says. She'd always drawn, but never pursued it as a career until a friend suggested she apply for a temporary position as an artist at Genentech, the bay area's biotech behemoth.

Cancer Cell cover - cartoon cell

Cover illustration of breast-cancer drug trastuzumab - Allison Bruce

That was 18 years ago, and now Bruce is a Senior Graphics Specialist at Genentech. "It's a lot of fun," she says. "It's really cutting-edge what they do here." She gets to learn about research before it's even published, translating brand-new knowledge about the world from words into pictures.

The detail can be exquisite, as in an illustration of the eye's blood vessel growth (above), which shuttled back and forth many times between Bruce and the researcher to make sure each line was accurate. The result is an eerily beautiful representation of sickness and health.

Bruce's favorite projects, though, are journal covers, because they offer more flexibility to play around. To illustrate the action of trastuzumab, a breast-cancer drug, she enlisted her nephew's help to cartoonify a cell, complete with classic ZAP! and POW!.

Bruce also helps researchers with presentations, animations, and web design, and is constantly learning new tools. "It's an unusual job, but there's a lot of demand for it," she says.

bone marrow image from Kevin Ang

Storyboard image of bone marrow - Kevin Ang

In fact, there's enough demand that Genentech sometimes hires freelancers, such as self-described "gun-for-hire" Kevin Ang ("Wacom-tablet-for-hire" might be slightly more accurate). Ang has also worked for Bayer, Intuit, and Google, among others. "Around here, it's all either pharma or tech," he says.

Ang's art jobs range from graphic recording (a bit like RSAnimate, but done in real time during a meeting) to commercial storyboarding. He particularly enjoys illustrating sequences that depict drug delivery because, he says, "There's a very cinematic aspect to the things that happen at that scale in our bodies. I think of it as something from Fantastic Voyage."

Cover illustration by Allison Bruce. "Much like Persephone, Greek goddess of spring growth and queen of the underworld, some glioblastoma cells possess the capability for self-renewal."

Cover illustration by Allison Bruce. "Much like Persephone, Greek goddess of spring growth and queen of the underworld, some glioblastoma cells possess the capability for self-renewal."

Unlike Bruce, Ang started out in art school. On his way to a BFA from UC Santa Cruz, his imagination was captured by a few natural science illustration courses. "It was great to be surrounded by scientists," he says.

Bruce, too, loves working with and learning from scientists–perhaps in part because they often have their own idiosyncratic ideas. One of Bruce’s cover illustrations sprang from a researcher's suggestion that Persephone, Greek goddess of spring and the underworld, could represent a self-renewing cell line.

But even that wasn't Bruce's strangest project. Once she was asked to create a life-size Ronald McDonald bearing the face of a researcher, to welcome him back from sabbatical.

Drawing for scientists: never a dull moment.

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Category: Biology, Blog, Health

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Danna Staaf

About the Author ()

Danna is a marine biologist, a science writer, a novelist, an artist, and an educator. She helped found the outreach program Squids4Kids, illustrated The Game of Science, and has blogged at Squid A Day since 2009. She holds a BA in Creative Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a PhD in Baby Squid from Stanford. She lives in San Jose with her husband, daughter, and cats.