Read Cristina’s paper via THIS LINK
What first interested you in medical visualisation?
As a child, I loved drawing. I wanted to be a comic artist. I spent hours putting pencil to paper and creating funny little stories for my younger brothers. However, as I grew I heard here and there that drawing was not a real job and that I could never make a living from it, and I believed it. I silently resolved that I would continue drawing in my free time but that I would become something else.
At the time I was greatly inspired by the documentaries of Jacques Cousteau and David Attenborough and I decided that I wanted to be a marine biologist. I took up biology in high school with great interest. One day, our biology teacher played an animation called “The inner Life of the Cell”. I was fascinated by how much clarity and curiosity it sparked in me. I had never before been able to see inside a cell. Suddenly all the bits and pieces of monotone, heavy text began to click into place. This was my first encounter with medical visualisation, and it was pure “Wow”.
I became very interested in science at a smaller scale. I wanted to learn about its latest advances and about how we could use tiny molecules to solve huge problems. To me it sounded very much like the future and possibly a safe job. So for the third time I changed my mind and decided to pursue a career in Biotechnology.
At University, during my Bachelor of Science, I inadvertently started to drift towards art again. I noticed that my classmates and I regarded images as the ultimate way to understand complex processes. Because I loved drawing, I enjoyed creating simple infographics and crude animations for our study sessions and class projects and became known for them. During lectures I found myself sketchnoting. I was always put in charge of the visual and creative part of projects, which I accepted happily. By the end of my Bachelor, I had decided that I wanted to illustrate science. I would use my scientific training to create visuals that would make learning easier and better. This was the perfect combination of my two greatest interests.
Tell us a bit about your background and education.
Regarding my artistic background, I am, for a large part, self-taught. I started drawing and painting as a child. As a teenager I discovered digital art and taught myself how to use a graphic tablet to create images in Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.
I have a BSc in Biotechnology, which has provided me with a sound scientific foundation to base my illustrations on. At the end of my BSc, when I decided that I wanted to become a scientific illustrator, I thought it might be a good idea to have some formal education in arts, since until this point I had had none. During a year, I took several courses on traditional and digital illustration. At the same time, I started creating illustrations for research groups that I had been in contact with during my laboratory internships. This was the first step towards my career as a freelancer.
Once I had a sound portfolio, I applied to the MSc Medical Art at the University of Dundee, where I further developed my artistic skills and knowledge of anatomy. I also learned new skills, like motion graphics, storyboarding, 3D modeling and animation. Throughout the course I continued to work as a freelancer, gradually building on my client list and portfolio. At Dundee, I had the opportunity to work with and learn from experienced professionals like Dr. Caroline Erolin, Dr. Richard Oparka, Annie Campbell and Emily McDougall, all whom greatly inspired me. My master’s project and my internship as medical illustrator had such a positive impact on my training and drove me to enthusiastically shift my mindset from student to professional.
As a Scientific Illustrator, what does your job entail?
My purpose is to create beautiful visuals that accurately convey key messages in a clear way. To achieve this, I need to have a thorough understanding of the subject. My scientific training provides the solid support I need to confidently discern the message and purpose behind each project. Then I can dive into research, pinpoint key bits of information and illustrate them in a way that will help others understand. During the whole process, it’s vital to keep an open mind. Important changes might need to be made for the sake of accuracy, clarity or aesthetics, so it’s important that I don’t get over-attached to my creation, as it will be constantly evolving until it is finished. To me, it is important to be curious and ask pertinent questions as well as listen. Sometimes, these questions have helped clients identify gaps in their research.
Being a scientific illustrator also involves continuously expanding and strengthening my set of skills. I very much enjoy self-learning, experimenting and challenging myself to create new, better visuals. It is an ever ongoing process, and it will continue to be so throughout my career.
My job entails artistic skills, undoubtedly, but also other abilities that have to do with the more businesslike aspect of the work. Working as a freelancer is, in many ways, like running a miniature business. To be able to face this situation, I have had to develop a whole other set of skills, including project and time management, client management, online marketing, web design, pricing, communication and networking.
One of the most challenging skills I have had to develop is discipline. As a freelancer, I am ultimately responsible for my own success. To have no one tell you what you must learn, which congresses you should attend or who you should pitch to is actually quite hard, because it means you have to figure it out and do it yourself. Truly loving my job is definitely what has helped me through many hours of patience and dedication.
What tools or software do you use in your work?
I work mainly digitally, but I feel more comfortable creating the first sketches on paper. Physically writing and creating lines helps me to structure and distil ideas better.
For illustrations I use mainly Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop. Generally, Photoshop for a more realistic or organic finish and Illustrator for simpler vector illustrations or icons. I also use Photoshop to give the finishing touches to 3D images that I have created with other software. For infographics and other projects that involve images and text I use a combination of Adobe InDesign and Illustrator. Also from the Adobe suit, I use After Effects and Premiere to create motion graphics and 2D animation.
To create 3D models and animations I work mainly with Autodesk Maya, but I am currently in the process of transitioning to Blender, which is open source. I also love to use Sketchfab as an interactive 3D content sharing platform.
Can you briefly tell me about the project “The cell cycle: development of an eLearning animation“?
This was my master’s project for the MSc Medical Art at the University of Dundee. It is a 2D animation, addressed to science and medical students, that explains the basics of the cell cycle in an innovative and engaging way by using video game aesthetics.
The cell cycle is a very complex process that involves many components and learning it can sometimes be overwhelming for students. My aim was to present the most relevant features of the cycle in a way that appealed to students. Thinking of how much I loved platform video games and how easily I could remember all Super Mario levels, I thought I could come up with a video game analogy to present something as complex as the cell cycle in a way that it could be learned and remembered.
The animation includes the key learning points and messages outlined in the Medical School curriculum at the University of Dundee and is now a part of the Pathology module lessons. It can be viewed here.
Read more about Cristina’s research in her paper here.
Did you need to learn any new skills during the project?
This was the very first animation that I produced, so I had to learn a new set of skills to complete this project. Before I started, I learned about the animation workflow, which includes scripting, storyboarding and the animation production itself. While working on the project I learned how to use Adobe After Effects from scratch by watching many online tutorials and experimenting. I learned to animate objects and text, as well as rigging and animation of characters.
Aside the creation of the animation itself, I also developed new skills related to project management in general, such as a good understanding of project briefs, time management, meetings with clients, deadlines and implementation of feedback.
What was most rewarding about the project?
The most rewarding was to learn so much during the creative process. Before starting the project, I did not really have all the skills I needed, but nevertheless I took on the challenge and was able to complete it.
What are you working on right now?
I’m currently collaborating with a research group that studies the role of endocrine disruptors in the etiology of Diabetes. I have recently created several illustrations for scientific papers and re-designed presentations for them. At present I am working on an animation that illustrates cellular mechanisms. The most motivating aspect of this project is that it goes beyond science. Because it concerns public health, it might even impact important decision making. Each part of it must be tailored to a different media, approach and type of audience: researchers, epidemiologists, general public, health services managers, the industry…It is always a fun creative challenge to find effective ways to address the same information to such a variety of viewers.
I’m also presently in the midst of re-designing my own website.
Is there another project you would like the opportunity to undertake?
I can think of so many things that I would gladly spend many hours on! To name a couple…
I would love to work on a project that involved 3D modelling and Virtual Reality at a cellular or molecular level. I have always found immersive resources to be the most captivating.
I would also really enjoy creating short 2D animations in a cute vector style (similar to my Cell Cycle animation) to illustrate cellular processes or communicate advances in biotechnology to the public.