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What first interested you in medical visualization?
I came to medical visualization relatively late in the game, after spending the better part of a decade training and working as an architect. I like to say I took the scenic route! I’d received a science education at school and briefly considered pursuing a life sciences career, but I also loved to draw and work with my hands so decided to enroll in architecture school. I don’t recall scientific illustration being on anyone’s radar at the time in the school system where I grew up, so I hadn’t even considered that option as a more fitting marriage of disciplines.
Fortunately, when I eventually became more interested in the visual communication aspect of my design work, I undertook a career shift towards illustration and was lucky to be commissioned to research, write and illustrate science workbooks for homeschooled kids. It rekindled past academic interests and I enjoyed the process so much that I knew I’d found my niche. I researched the field of scientific visual communication; the more I learned about it the more fascinated I grew. I eventually enrolled in the Dundee Medical Art programme to make the full transition to becoming a freelance scientific illustrator.
Tell us a bit about your background and education.
I received my formal education in Medical Art at the University of Dundee, where I was lucky not only to enjoy excellent facilities and instruction but also to meet some very inspiring individuals involved in the field (both colleagues and medics) that influenced the direction of my interests and even the structure of my current business.
I do hope that my design background also helps me bring a different point of view to the field. I’m still pretty amused when I come across anatomical terms that are also architectural, and I find biomimetic design fascinating.
As a freelance scientific illustrator, what does your job entail?
The job is quite dynamic and varied in terms of clients, audiences and media. I work with the commercial, academic and non-profit sectors, and as such offer a varied set of core services so that I can best respond to each client’s brief (and budget!). Over the past year I’ve done some interactive data visualizations for a diagnostic platform, illustrated online modules teaching basic clinical skills, created animated 3D models for surgical devices and drawn up patent drawings. Versatility is doubly important in my situation inasmuch as I’ve recently relocated to a country where the field of scientific illustration is still underdeveloped if not unheard of: it allows me to take on more commissions and also to do some client education by showing them all the things they can achieve with visuals! Despite the challenges of building up a local client base, it’s also been exciting to come to a place that’s still so open to new possibilities and ventures.
What’s consistent across projects is that we’re trying to bring the reader or viewer into worlds of knowledge that are often quite specialized. This requires extensive research of course, and visually summarizing and synthesizing content through text and images, but it’s equally important to strike the right aesthetic or emotional chord that will resonate with an audience. Whether it’s about dissemination or dialogue, it’s still really all about working for that audience. To do all this successfully, there has to be frequent and open communication between the client and illustrator.
What tools or software do you use in your work?
My work is mostly digital but I try to stick to paper and pencil for as long as possible in its early stages—I go through a lot of trace rolls. Once the work transitions to the computer, I draw with a graphic tablet, and for software it’s the usual suspects of Illustrator and Photoshop for vector and raster work, After Effects and Premiere for video creation, and assorted 3D tools such as Zbrush, Maya and Sketchfab. Most recently I’ve been trying to figure out a preferred workflow for working with molecular data so I’ve also been experimenting with multiple molecular plug-ins and stand-alone applications.
Tell us about the project “Breaking down apoptosis: animating programmed cell death in 3D for a pathology curriculum“
The paper explains how and why we created a short educational animation on apoptosis (aka programmed cell death) for the first-year medical students at the University of Dundee School of Medicine. There’s a lot of pressure on both medical instructors and students to respectively deliver and take in large amounts of information in very little class time, and it can be a particular challenge to communicate key learning objectives for subjects like pathology, which goes into detailed coverage of disease pathways and mechanisms. For this reason, pathologist Dr Richard Oparka commissioned this animation as part of an effort to diversify the learning resources on offer at the University of Dundee.
In the paper, I’ve tried to cover the learning theories behind the design choices as well as to provide a step-by-step technical overview of the process. It’s open access on the JVisComm website through November 2018, and the pre-print manuscript is also available on my website.
Did you learn any new skills during the project?
I’d worked with 3D programmes similar to Maya in the past, but this was a intensive crash course in animation that allowed me to take on solo animation commissions subsequently. Hats off to all the people who provided invaluable technical and creative support during the process!
What was most rewarding about the project?
I always get excited when I reach that part of a project where all the different pieces of the work—the research, the artistic direction, the technical aspects—are just beginning to fall into place. Suddenly it’s gone from parts to whole and found shape and meaning, yet it’s still a work-in-progress with open possibilities.
Of course when this particular project was handed in, it was also very rewarding to see it fulfill its purpose and receive positive feedback from Dundee students and instructors. After the animation was shared with the wider public under a Creative Commons license, other science teachers also reached out online to report that they were using it in their own curricula—it was a pleasant bonus to hear that it had found use beyond the University as well.
What are you working on right now?
I currently have a mix of projects in various media and subjects. I love medically-related commissions but I am happy to keep working in different disciplines as well, as long as it’s related to visual knowledge. Alongside a set of short surgical sequences for a medical device company, I’m producing a 2D animation for research dissemination in political economy, and health outreach posters for a non-profit. After that I’ll start working on illustrations for a forestry guide.
Is there another project you would like the opportunity to undertake?
I’d like to collaborate with a local hospital ward and assist in formulating a framework and possibly developing a set of resources that would support doctors who’d like to communicate more visually with their patients. I’ve witnessed on a very personal level how helpful visuals can be in informing patients and carers and facilitating their exchanges with medics. A project like this may be some way off in the future but it’s something I’m keeping in mind.
Learn more about Elvire here: