Scientific illustration plays a crucial role in plant sciences as it highlights the intricate details of plant structures and their biological processes. While photographs and microscopy images are great at capturing moments, scientific illustrations act as bridges between researchers and the general public, making complex scientific concepts more accessible. Therefore, these visuals are invaluable tools that capture intricate concepts, which can be easily understood by both scientists and the broad community.
Dr. Sonhita Chakraborty is a postdoc and scientific editor fascinated by living cells and their function. While completing her PhD in plant molecular biology, she took to making whimsical paintings of cells. We decided to interview her due to her passion for bridging science and art, as well as her creative way of breaking down complex biological concepts that can be understood by scientists and non-scientists. Her work has been featured in undergraduate biology laboratory manuals for the University of Toronto, various scientific journals, plant guidebooks, art magazines, and international scientific meetings.
Meet Dr. Sonhita Chakraborty
Dr. Chakraborty’s transition from botany to scientific art exemplifies the harmonious union of art and science. Having spent a decade as a botanist with a focus on plant evolutionary ecology, Dr. Chakraborty moved into sustainable agriculture for her master’s. The aspiration to make a genuine difference led her back to the lab at the University of Toronto to delve into the nuances of molecular biology. Yet, art was always a passion lingering in the background.
Dr. Chakraborty found solace in creating whimsical scientific art as a means to de-stress and comfort herself. Her talent was discovered by a friend who worked as an academic coordinator for a biology course, and she was given the opportunity to showcase her scientific art in laboratory manuals. Later on, her skills as a scientific editor at leading academic publishing companies such as Elsevier and Cell Press served as a platform for her to showcase her illustrative abilities even further. She designed captivating covers, by adding her personal touch via bright colors and bold shapes, that drew readers in while capturing complex biological processes.
Benefits of scientific illustration
Scientific illustration is crucial in making intricate scientific concepts more accessible to both scientists and the general public. Dr. Chakraborty believes that a well-designed graphical abstract can capture the essence of a research paper, allowing viewers, especially those who prefer visual learning, to understand the core ideas before diving into the details. Even journal covers can be visually appealing and entice readers to explore its contents further. During conferences, presentations with rich graphical content tend to captivate and engage audiences more effectively. These visuals have the power to make science less intimidating and more approachable to everyone, regardless of their level of expertise. The impact of scientific art can be exemplified by the scientific illustration efforts that took place during the COVID-19 pandemic, with numerous illustrations simplifying complex concepts related to the virus and vaccines for a wider audience.
How to become a scientific illustrator?
For those aspiring to become scientific illustrators, Dr. Chakraborty offers some invaluable advice. She highlights that formal education, although helpful, isn’t a strict prerequisite to becoming a scientific illustrator. Rather, motivation, networking, and willingness to learn hold the key. She emphasizes that aspiring illustrators should be willing to learn tools and techniques and be adaptable to client’s needs. Some important skills she mentioned were efficiency, such as not re-inventing the wheel while illustrating by learning shortcuts on software. Moreover, the guidance of a senior mentor can offer invaluable insights, illuminating areas that require refinement in one’s illustrative journey.
However, embracing this profession full-time demands considerable dedication in terms of time, energy, and resources. It’s a role that requires not only passion and persistence but also investment in equipment and printing. Venturing into scientific illustration, especially as a self-employed artist, often means taking financial risks without a guaranteed outcome. In addition, determining the market value of art and effective self-promotion, especially in the digital age of social media, can be formidable barriers.
Some free and accessible tools Dr. Chakraborty recommends for aspiring artists are Figma and Inkskape. Figma is a cloud-based design tool tailored for collaborative work that can be used to create vector-based projects, which ensures that the quality of the artwork remains consistent across various sizes and platforms. There are multiple free online courses to learn how to use it. On the other hand, Inkscape is an open-source vector graphics editor, somewhat akin to Adobe Illustrator, but without the hefty price tag. Offering a wide range of tools and features, Inkscape is perfect for creating detailed illustrations.
The future of scientific illustration
Scientific illustration is undergoing several transformative shifts, as highlighted by Dr. Chakraborty. Technological advancements, such as the release of Procreate Dreams, are set to revolutionize the field by enabling the creation of animations and videos without requiring an in-depth technical background. Such affordable and user-friendly tools will make it much simpler to convey scientific concepts through dynamic visuals. Artificial Intelligence is also set to reshape scientific illustration, promising enhanced tools and techniques. However, it is important to ensure that artists and scientists receive proper attribution and that the resulting illustrations maintain scientific accuracy. The growth of art communities is fostering collaboration and connectivity, elevating the reach and impact of illustrative work. There is an increasing demand for diverse representation in the field. It is essential to have a structured platform or database that showcases illustrators across various skill and price ranges. Initiatives like iGEM are pioneering this movement, fostering collaborations between artists and scientists, and ensuring diverse voices and talents find the limelight. Without a doubt, the future holds promise, collaboration, and innovation in the realm of scientific illustration.
You can connect with Dr. Chakrabory on Instagram (@cyberabbit), Twitter/X (@qwertress), or through her linktree (https://linktr.ee/cyberabbit)
Tools used for scientific illustrations
A well-made figure/ illustration makes publishing much easier! Making a suitable and appealing illustration can be a daunting task. In this infographic, ASPB Plantae Fellows Lekshmy Sathee and Alice Pierce present information on widely used tools for scientific illustration (both paid and open access) that are widely used by scientific illustrators and authors.
About the Author:
Lekshmy Sathee is currently a Senior Scientist, Plant Physiology at ICAR- Indian Agriculture Research Institute, New Delhi, India and a 2023 Plantae Fellow. Her research focusses on plant mineral nutrition- mainly nitrogen use efficiency of cereals. You can find her on Twitter at @lekshmysnair.
Alice Pierce is PhD student at University of California, Davis, and a 2023 Plantae Fellow. She is researching the effects of stimulatory introns on gene architecture and chromatin biology. Alice is interested in bringing more visibility to the plant sciences, and bridging the intersection between science, science communication and art. You can find her on X at @alicevpierce.