Drawing to coax new scientific questions

Late into her PhD, biologist Ipsa Jain realised that she did not want to spend her life in a lab. Was it okay then to change her mind and embrace visual arts — something which never failed to make her happy?
By | Published on Mar 25, 2020

Artwork by Ipsa Jain– Left Top: Life vs. hydra; Left Bottom: A melanocyte with pigment aggregated at the centre; Right: Ipsa Jain.

By Ipsa Jain (originally for Nature India)

During the fag end of PhD, I was convinced that the life of a lab rat was not for me. I was having a tough time figuring out a path different from what had been my single-minded pursuit since high school. Around that time, I came across a blog by Bulgarian writer Maria Popova (Brain Pickings), which convinced me that it was okay to change my mind. I asked myself what I’d be happy doing. Art was an easy answer.

I went back to doodling and drawing after ten years. I drew things I knew, I drew biology. I started taking online art and design courses and posted some natural history inspired drawings along with tit-bits about the specimen. People started approbating the work and the information.

At a student festival at the Indian Institute of Science Bangalore, an undergrad student Abhijit Krishna asked me if I would want to exhibit my work. I did and to my surprise, people liked and bought my work. I realised that this could make for a living as well, and not just remain a temporary side gig.

Wildlife art

I interviewed a lot of wildlife artists around the country including Abhisheka KrishnaGopal, Sangeetha Kadur, Rohan Chakraborty and Pooja Gupta. Conversations with them made me realise the impact of their work. It is through joy and beauty that they were able to spark conversations around the subject. I also realised that it was this very joy and beauty that had allowed me to connect with my audience through my early work.

Soon after, two of my friends Abhisheka KrishnaGopal and Veena Basavarajaiah invited me to be part of a dance project called ‘how to be a fig’. In this performance, a group of homemakers, engineers, dancers and scientists danced to the ecology of figs based on the book Ladders to Heaven by Mike Shanahan. We were the tempest one minute, a fighting monkey the other, and a growing branch another. The response from the audience was so strong and emotional that I realised the real power of art. It transforms the performer and the observer. It is a beautiful medium of exchange of ideas. That experience still defines my understanding of what it means to be an artist.

This understanding of art as a force evokes and provokes a lot of my work.

Understanding science visualisation

In one of my first illustration gigs, I created graphics for the web page of Dr Arjun Guha at Instem, Bengaluru. As we discussed his work, I began thinking with the physicality of anatomy in mind. Drawing can force you to think differently. I got to read about the beautiful work of other science visualisers, including David Goodsell, Drew Berry and Graham Johnson. They incorporate a lot of science in making images. The end product often throws up new scientific questions and hypothesis.

Mice eating and excreting.

I once attended a talk by Italian science visualiser Monica Zoppè. She said something extremely profound and I paraphrase it here. When we think like scientists, we think within the pragmatic constraints of resources and techniques. When we visualise our science, we are forced to think without these constraints. And if we come up with new ideas and questions, we are forced to push the boundaries of our techniques to answer these questions.

I got to experience these ideas first hand as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Minhaj Sirajuddin at InStem. Collaboratively, I worked on drawing a molecular motor with French digital animator Renaud Chabrier and biologist Carsten Janke at the Insititut Curie in Orsay, France. While summarising data into a pencil drawing, I found that the existing information on molecular motion didn’t match reports from structural data. I asked these questions to leading researchers in the field (unpublished data).

Renaud Chabrier exposed me to more ideas on how to incorporate science into a drawing. He taught me that while portraying information that is still under study or has an element of doubt, use faint strokes, and for established data use solid lines. I still use this trick all the time!

A watercolour depiction of ‘calcium signalling’ — how calcium ions communicate and drive intercellular processes.

I also got exposed to the work of Gemma Anderson, a drawing practitioner who works with scientists and organises drawing labs for science students. Her work doesn’t rely on conventional iconography but recreates these forms and asks newer questions in the process. She coaxes scientists to contextualise their work in a space and time matrix. My dream would be to do similar work with Indian labs, where we use drawing exercises to think about our subjects differently.

Practising science communication

As my ideas grew from joy to information-driven image-making, I found myself asking what “sciart” means. Where and how does it overlap with science communication and with science visualization?

Pencil drawing trying to understand the form of a molecular motor.

Luckily my postdoc project allowed me to ask this very question on a daily basis. We are making a book for young adults on colouration in animals and how quickly these colours change. The idea is to discuss behaviour, anatomy, physiology and molecular processes in one book. The research is based on science and the images (particularly microscopic) are direct interpretation of available data. But I often have to balance clarity with accuracy to highlight the story. While the images are informed by science, they do not incorporate all details. This experience has taught me that the content and images we need to tell a story also depend on the intent and the audience.

In a project last year, I asked what a cell is. I realised that the textbook definition is incomplete in so many ways. In trying to find a more nuanced answer, I interacted with college students from fields other than science. From my drawings, some of them interpreted the distribution of internal structures differently — they felt that organelles are different at different depths, and the shape of the cell changes from top to bottom. Some figured out the polarity of the cell. Some were even able to identify and predict relationships between organelles. For example, they noticed how mitochondria (the energy making organelles) were closely related to the periphery of the cell where cilia, the structures that drive the motion of the cell, are located.

Mixed media depiction compares the form and interior of an orange with Tetrahymena, a unicellular organism.

I am a great believer in sharing what I learn without waiting to acquire expertise in it. I have been conducting workshops on science illustration and graphic design for scientists. I also use art classes as an excuse to talk about some scientific concepts.

At a students’ course called ‘Art of Being’ in St. Joseph’s College, Bengaluru, we have been discussing how observation-based drawing can be used to learn about a subject. The course, attended by both science and economics students challenges me to think about my own ideas, and the students to think of the science (and other subjects) differently. How does an illustrator choose to represent certain information, and hide some? How does that affect the perception we create about the subject? How do we know about time while looking at schematic art or a drawing? How does our inherent bias affect the collection of data? These are some of the questions we ask.

At a science illustration workshop, students copied an artwork by American biologist-artist David Goodsell. Each chose to highlight different aspects of the drawing reflecting that science visualisers could choose to see or show different things.

I am hoping to engage with science and design students on observation and documentation, which remain the essence of the scientific process. I hope to bring them together to ask newer questions and seek newer answers. As a freelancer, I hope to collaborate with more scientists and visualise their science.


Ipsa Jain is a member of TheLifeofScience.com collective. You can check out some of her work at www.ipsawonders.com.

This article was originally published on the Nature India blog as part of their Sci Art Scribbles series.

About the author(s)
Ipsa Jain

Art director at The Life of Science

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *