Communicating science through art

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A month before she started school at Iowa State University, Caitlin Mock still planned to study biology. Then she discovered a different ISU major, one that was a little under the radar but combined her keen interest in science with her artistic side.

“I never figured I’d be a designer,” Mock, now a senior, said.

Shawna Snyder, and senior in BPMI, created this barn swallow using pen stippling.

She is one of about 60 ISU students majoring in biological and pre-medical illustration. BPMI educates students in the divergent fields of natural science and art to produce drawings, paintings, sculptures, computer animations and other scientifically accurate art forms that also are aesthetically pleasing.

“The most successful students are very good to excellent in both fields,”Dean Biechler said.

Biechler, along with John Dorn, a 1999 graduate of the ISU program, are medical and biological illustrators who teach most of the program’s art courses.

“You need a sound understanding of the sciences so when a physician or a scientist talks to you, your eyes won’t glaze over,” Biechler added. “At the same time, you have to be very good in art.”

Few similar programs exist

BPMI, which will turn 30 years old in 2014, is a shared program between the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the College of Design, and it is administratively housed in LAS. The major has few peers: less than 10 similar programs exist or are planned at other American universities.

Biological and medical illustrators work with researchers, doctors and others to turn detailed and complex information into visual images. Their work is found in textbooks, scientific jour- nals, instructional videos, museum exhibits, surgical brochures and many more places, including courtrooms when juries need to understand complicated medical information.

Biechler says the most important thing BPMI students do is communicate. “We’re conceptual artists. It’s not just about pretty pictures, they have to tell a story.”

The drawings are as varied as the nat- ural world, including skeletons, organs, birds, fish, mammals, plant life and microbes. And illustrators use a variety of media: paint, charcoal, pen and ink, colored pencils and software programs such as Photoshop.

Using medical illustrations to help others

The art also can be three-dimensional. Mock, from Pella, Iowa, wants to enter the field of anasplastology and create facial prosthetics, such as ears and noses.

“I really want to help people,” Mock said. She hopes to attend one of the three U.S. schools that offer a master’s degree in medical illustration.

A talented artist who leans more to the science side, Mock was drawn to the program’s “unique” environment. “I said I’d try BPMI and switch majors if I didn’t like it,” she recalled. “But I fit right in. It’s a cool community.”

It’s also a small community of students who can flat out draw and be anatomically and scientifically accurate. An art student once told Mock that her work does not need to be perfect. “Oh, yes it does,” Mock replied, adding, “We’re all pretty much perfectionists.”

To ensure accuracy, Biechler counts ribs, vertebrae, even spines on fish when critiquing student drawings. “We’re always looking at the taxonomy,” he said. “They must be accurate.” Precision drawings can be time consuming, especially for less experienced student illustrators. However, Biechler said the goal is skill development, not speed.

Students take a rigorous set of biology courses, including anatomy and physiology, said ISU biologist and BPMI program director Lynn Clark. “They take the same introductory courses as the biology students.”

Clark explained the science background is needed when a student has to demonstrate, for example, how a muscle or nerve works. “The drawing cannot just be artistically pleasing.  The illustrator has to show the form and function relationship.”

In a world filled with high-tech photography and video capabilities, it is sometimes asked why biological and medical illustrations are still needed. It’s interpretation, Clark said. “Even with all the digital images, you must have interpretation. You must show the most important features and the relationships involved among those features.”

When a new plant species is discovered, she said an illustration can more clearly show the differences in the new species. Illustrations also are needed to show hidden processes, such as a microbial activity within the soil. “Students must synthesize a lot of data and determine how best to show it visually,” Clark said.

“Simple is better,” Biechler explained. “The illustrations get rid of all the extraneous information so the viewer can understand the concept better.”

A world of opportunity

Jennifer Owens has been a BPMI academic adviser for most of the past 15 years. “Most of the students will say, ‘I love science, but I can’t give up the art’ or vice-versa,” she said. “They tend to live in both worlds equally. It’s really a unique skill set.”

About half the graduates go into master’s programs to become certified medical illustrators. The other grads find positions with scientific publishers, museums, gaming and software companies, and other employers needing people with keen artistic skills and an eye for detail.

Some BPMI students have enjoyed the science so much they have gone into fields like medicine, dentistry, podiatry and biochemistry. A few others have gone the other route by becoming full-time artists.

“Our students can do a lot of different things,” Biechler said. “They tend to be pretty darn smart."

PUBLISHED IN LINK ALUMNI MAGAZINE, FALL 2013 College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Iowa State University Contacts: Steve Jones, LAS Communications, (515) 294-1301,