“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.
Of the skills you developed as a grad student, which are most useful to you in your current position? Which are you happy to leave behind?
The skills that I developed as a grad student and that are most useful to me now are: attention to detail, learning something from scratch, finding out reliable sources of information, interpreting and evaluating information, synthesizing and writing information, scientific writing, scientific writing in English.
The skill that I am happy to leave behind is: dealing with the academic bureaucracy!
Are there any skills/tools/habits that you need in your field but didn’t develop during your grad school training?
Some skills I already had before grad school or college, but now I want and need to further develop: general drawing, scientific illustration (some universities offer undergraduate and graduate courses and programs on this area, this was not my case), (web and graphic) design, English grammar.
Other skills I neither had nor developed during grad school, and therefore have been studying on my own: entrepreneurship, business administration and marketing.
What’s a typical day for you like now?
A typical day for me is mostly dedicated to any freelance illustration or translation job that I am working on at the time.
The translation process involves: reading the original document (usually a paper), making the rough translation, making the first review (this is when I spend a long time searching dictionaries, databases, textbooks and papers in both languages to make sure that a term is correctly translated) and making the second and final review.
The illustration process involves studying the references (photographs and sketches) and materials provided by the client, as well as making my own research on the theme. It’s also necessary to check any requirements for the final image file depending on the intended use for the illustration. Only then I can start sketching. The sketch is sent to the client for approval or correction, and then the final version of the illustration is drawn using traditional media such as drawing pencils, pens and watercolor pencils and inks. Finally, the illustration is scanned in high quality and digitally adjusted, and the final image file is sent for the client.
I also dedicate some time to updating my site/blog and related social media pages, and to collecting interesting news, images, quotes, blog posts, references and sites that might inspire posts for my blog.
What’s the best thing about your job? Do you miss anything about bench work?
One of the best things about my work is that each translation or illustration job is a challenge to test my skills and also an opportunity to learn something new about fields that I’m interesting in. I can keep up to date with current scientific knowledge in my subject areas (ecology, botany, conservation) without actually doing the research. I also like to think that my work as a translator helps breaking the language barrier and bringing Brazilian research to an international audience.
Another great thing is the fact that now I am location independent. If I have my notebook, my art supplies and drawing table, and a fast internet connection, I can do my work. No commute, no worries about having to find a new job in case I ever want to move to another city!
I do not miss bench work in the laboratory, but that was never my favorite anyway. However, sometimes I do miss field work, which was often dangerous and exhaustive, but also exciting and invigorating. Some of the places I’ve been, some of the people I’ve met and some of my best memories and photographs of nature are related to the field work I performed during college and grad school!
Where do you see yourself going from here?
I’m planning to expand the blog, publishing more posts with different kinds of content. 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.
As my experience grows, I also think of providing other kinds of services, such as courses and talks, and of developing products such as illustrated posters and books.
Of course, this is not a strict schedule. I’m learning to do the best I can but to let go of expectations and to change course when necessary.
Any words of wisdom for current grad students who might be interested in making a transition like yours?
A transition like mine involves reuniting art and science. This often looks like something impossible in our society. However, here are some wise words to keep in mind:
“Artists and scientists can be interested in the same subject: painters and geographers may share the same passion for the physical landscape; novelists and psychologists for human relationships; poets and biologists for the nature of consciousness. It is not what interests artists or scientists that distinguishes them from each other, but how it interests them. The difference lies in the types of understanding they are searching for, in the functions of these processes and in the modes of understanding they employ. Artists and scientists are not always different people.”— Ken Robinson