Crafting Your Career (CYC) | 06 Informational Interview with Ipsa Jain — Science Illustration

Crafting your Career Episode 6

This is the second episode of the series on informational interviews”. Here IndiaBioscience chats with Ipsa Jain, a science illustrator, exploring her journey, her work, what inspired her to take on a rather unusual but emerging career trajectory. The conversation is styled in the format of an information interview, thus providing a science graduate useful insights both about the field itself and on how to approach an expert, seeking knowledge about the field that one wishes to explore!

Transcript with Timestamp

Lakshmi Ganesan 0:01
You’re listening to IndiaBiospeaks, your one stop resource for science news and careers.

Welcome everyone to our next installment of crafting your career in science. In this set of episodes, we are talking to various science professionals about their work and journey. These interviews, as you know, are in the style of an informational interview, which are great tools to connect directly with experts to find out what you wanted to know about a career path, and also a great way to expand your network.

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.

In answer to your question, how did I get here? 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. And since I was always interested in arts, the transition was not that hard. I created a lot of work. And at some point, I got to meet Minhaj at a conference and I showed him some of my work and I spoke about the kind of things I wanted to do and he decided to invite me to his laboratory. Thats how we started working together.

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. If you’re someone who has great taste, and an aesthetic sense, if you look at a billboard, or a movie poster, and if you think why they are good, or not working so well and have an inclination of what might make them better, you are somebody who has potential to be an illustrator.

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.

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?

That’s an important question Lakshmi

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.

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
Of course, David Goodsell, his work is simply breathtaking. To all our listeners, do check out the work of David Goodsell, we’ve added a link to his work, and we’re sure you love it as much as we do. We could go on and on if we get on that topic. 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
That’s an important question Lakshmi

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 9:17
Thanks for explaining that in detail Ipsa. Next, as someone that would want to venture into the field, I would be interested to know what kind of lifestyle am I looking at? Am I better off being a freelancer? Or is it better to associate myself with an institute like you have? If so, do funding bodies consider scientific illustration as an integral part of creating science as yet?

Ipsa Jain 9:40
That’s the toughest question to answer. In India right now, we don’t really have a lot of science-art grants. While Institutes are open to housing scientific writers, they’re not yet to open to scientific illustrators. And most of that work is often outsourced. But the are a few people and few Institutes. I am privileged to be part of one where there is space for us to exist. With a small but growing body of people who are interested in scientific illustration, whether it’s 2D animation, 2D illustration, digital medium, comics, and so on, a small number but a growing community of these artists who are talking about stories of science, hopefully, we will be able to raise our voices enough to get attention of the institutes as well as funding agencies to tell them, hey, we are there, we exist, and we can do these wonderful things for you.”

People are starting to appreciate the importance of images in scientific education, in conceptual learning, and science communication. While we wait for formal opportunities to arrive, freelancing is the way to go. While you learn and you practice, I would recommend diversifying your end products, work for websites, make some products, do some data visualisation, diversify your sources of income to sustain yourself. What I think we really need at this point is to have a consortium of illustrators within India, such that we can talk about these issues, learn from each other, do collaborative projects together, do bigger projects together, conduct exhibitions, build a proper team even, and so on. So I’m hopeful that this niche will grow and come together as it grows.

Lakshmi Ganesan 11:47
That sounds really promising Ipsa and the idea of having a consortium of science illustrators sounds like a great one. Along those lines, is there anything that you do not like or wish could be better in this space?

Ipsa Jain 12:02
Right now, it is an unorganised profession. And that’s where I think the consortium would help in trying to bring people together so that it can become a little more structured and more professional.

People also need to realize that this is an iterative process. It’s a collaboration, where the client speaks with the illustrator, Illustrator builds something, client gives feedback, which is almost like writing a manuscript. So it needs time, and creativity and people need to realize that.

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. I’ll also share an example from the history.

Initially, when scientists or people who were describing animal species and plant species. They were not only documenting in words, they were also doing what now become the science of natural history illustration, which were detailed drawings of the specimen in question that allow people to understand more about them.

Initially, when scientists or people who were describing animal species and plant species. They were not only documenting in words, they were also doing what now become the science of natural history illustration, which were detailed drawings of the specimen in question that allow people to understand more about them. And an example that I will share — Maria Sybilla Merian was in the forest of Surinam, observing and drawing insects and plant interactions. She drew a caterpillar and the adult butterfly on the same plant. And from her work was it revealed that the caterpillar actually transforms into the butterfly. Earlier people thought that caterpillar and butterfly are actually two different animals. So there as well, art or drawing was a tool in scientific advancement.

Lakshmi Ganesan 15:56
Those are interesting and great examples Ipsa — 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 colour, 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.

To all our listeners. Thanks for listening and do check out obsess work at ipsawon​ders​.com. In addition, in the description section of this podcast we have posted a bunch of interesting links of people’s works that we’ve discussed and nice tools that can get you started if you’re thinking to get on board as an illustrator. Until then, do keep listening and watch out for our next informational interview on yet another interesting science career only here on crafting your career in science.

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