“There are two kinds of truth: the truth that lights the way and the truth that warms the heart. The first of these is science, and the second is art. Neither is independent of the other or more important than the other. Without art science would be as useless as a pair of high forceps in the hands of a plumber. Without science art would become a crude mess of folklore and emotional quackery. The truth of art keeps science from becoming inhuman, and the truth of science keeps art from becoming ridiculous.”
This career story comes all the way from Brazil, where Carolina Brandão Zanelli turned her graduate degree in plant biology and love for drawing into a career as a scientific illustrator and translator. Read on to learn why Carolina decided to leave academia, how she forged her own career path, and what life is like as a scientific illustrator. Also be sure to check out Carolina’s website, Art for Scientists, where you can find examples of her work. As Carolina says, “the interaction between science and art is so exquisite, and yet, we often still see science and art as opposing, mutually exclusive paths. I’d like to use the blog to show that this is not necessarily true.”
What did you study in your graduate program?
I have a college degree in biology and studied plant biology in my graduate program. More specifically, in my undergraduate and graduate research I studied plant population ecology and community ecology in the Brazilian Cerrado, a savanna-like vegetation type and one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. I also studied ecological restoration because this was the main research theme in my laboratory.
When you first started the program, did you know what you wanted to do after grad school?
When I first started the program, (I thought) I wanted to pursue an academic career.
How did your career plans or goals change by the time you were finishing your degree?
My career plans had turned upside down by the time I was finishing my degree!
The more I saw of academia, the least I wanted to become part of it. Professors in Brazilian public universities are expected to dedicate themselves to three major activities – research, education and community outreach. But they are mostly evaluated (and, therefore, recognized and funded) by their contribution to research, and the mechanisms of this evaluation are still widely debated. The result is that professors and grad students are forced to “publish or perish”. Other academic activities such as education and community outreach are severely compromised, and those few that dedicate themselves to these activities are poorly recognized and funded, if at all. These and other academic issues slowly filled my mind with doubt and anxiety.
As time went by, I also noted that, although the academic career had seemed the logical thing to pursue, it was mostly what people in general expected of me (as a high-achieving student), but not necessarily what I wanted to do.
Then, in the second year of grad school, I failed the qualification exam. Soon after, when I was feeling sad and disappointed, a colleague wrote me to ask if I could draw an illustration for his paper.
How could I have forgotten? I had been drawing for my whole life! My drawing skills had already proved themselves incredibly useful during college for making the schemes of cells, tissues and organisms that are so important in biology. And in the previous year I had already been asked by two colleagues to make scientific illustrations for their publications!
This was my “epiphany”. After that I started searching the web for ways to fuse my art-related interests and skills with my education as a biologist and researcher. It took two more years of hard work to overcome my anxiety, complete my research and get the Master’s degree, gather information and start my own business as a scientific illustrator and translator.
Were you involved in any organizations or activities while in grad school that helped lead you to where you are now?
There was a point during grad school when I was out of funding, so I started working in an environmental company. It was in another city and my partner couldn’t move with me, which meant constant traveling. It was also quite outside of my area of specialization: I was performing microbiological analyses of water quality; even though the company had a sector dedicated to environmental impact analysis, to which I felt more suited with my knowledge on plant ecology and forest restoration. Eventually I quit this job to start my own business.
Nonetheless, it was still a good job, stable and well-paying. It enabled me to complete my Master’s and to save enough money to keep things going after I quit and launched my business, especially in the first four months. I met lots of people and learned several things, most of all, that you don’t need to know everything to start doing something.
What do you do now?
Now I work as a scientific illustrator and translator, at my site and blog Art for Scientists, where I help scientists and educators share their knowledge and hope to inspire scientists, educators, parents and students to see science and art in an integrated way.Read More...