Career resources in scientific visualization

4/13/2018 5:05:48 PM

Q&A with Tami Tolpa, medical illustrator extraordinaire 

Previously on the careers blog, we introduced you to medical illustrator Tami Tolpa ( @tolpastudios) in an introductory post on #sciart careers. I met Tami during her week hosting the @iamscicomm Twitter account last fall. What caught my attention is her streamlined and simplified approach to designing visuals and genuine interest in teaching scientists how to become better visual communicators. In fact, she and a colleague have designed an online course in visual communications for scientists in this area (more about that below).    

 Tami Tolpa

Tami is an experienced freelance medical illustrator and owner of Tolpa Studios, who specializes in the design of graphics, illustrations and animations for the biomedical sciences. She has an M.F.A. in medical illustration from the Rochester Institute of Technology, holds undergraduate degrees in both studio art and environmental studies and is a fellow of the Association of Medical Illustrators. For more details on her background and to see samples of her work, check out her website or Clarafi career profile.  

For this week, we reached back out to Tami to see what advice and resources she recommends for others interested in pursuing a career in scientific visualization and illustration. Here are her responses.  

Can you briefly describe what kinds of careers
exist in the field of scientific visualizations?

There are many opportunities for people trained in scientific visualization! Historically, we were called scientific or medical illustrators, and worked in hospitals, academic research centers, medical-publishing companies, medical-legal businesses and as freelance illustrators for a variety of clients. As markets have shifted and science has changed, new and different opportunities have been created. Artists now work in areas that include 3-D modeling and animation, infographics, data visualization, interactive media, educational games and apps, user-experience (UX) design, augmented or virtual reality, product design, surgical simulation, and in some exciting areas where computers and biomedical science intersect. I believe this expansion will continue and hope the ways that artists can contribute to science communication will continue to be explored.  

What attributes and background would make
this a good career choice for someone?

You don’t enter this career without a genuine love of science! And you also should have a passion for design and bringing clarity to visual communications. Scientific visualizers need to be detail-oriented as well as able to grasp the bigger picture. They need to be comfortable talking to scientists, asking questions and having their creative efforts judged throughout the iterative process required to arrive at a final piece. Plus, they have to have a sense of adventure! Jobs aren’t as straightforward or easy to find as they can be in other fields.  

Is a degree in fine arts required, and what
are the benefits of doing an accredited program?

This is a complicated question. I can think of situations where a degree isn’t necessary, but it ultimately depends on who’s doing the hiring. As with any career, the right experience and connections can get you an interview. Many people come to this career through avenues other than a formal medical illustration program. But most do have backgrounds in both science and the visual arts, and many do go through a formal degree program. There are real benefits to attending a program. Upon matriculation, graduates have an immediate group of colleagues and mentors, many of whom can be very important throughout their careers. Graduates take business courses to learn how to find work and what to charge, receive instruction in the latest software and learn about the history of the profession. I have an M.F.A in medical illustration because I didn’t know any other way to get to where I wanted to be. Back then, there weren’t as many ways to find clients, to promote yourself and to connect with other like-minded artists. It’s different now. Regardless of whether you attend a formal program or get informal training and develop a portfolio on your own, you need to stay nimble and keep up on the latest trends and tools and best practices to be employable in this field.  

What formal education programs do you suggest people look into?

The Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI) is a great resource. There’s information about the four graduate programs that are AMI-accredited on its website. There are a few other programs not listed there as well.

What types of informal training programs and opportunities exist in this field?

Both the Association of Medical Illustrators and the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators hold conferences where attendees can take workshops and engage in other continuing-education activities. You don’t have to be a member to take a workshop, though the AMI does offer student and associate memberships for people interested in this career, and they’d love to have more scientists and people from adjacent disciplines as members. AMI members also have access to job postings, an online community, webinars and continuing-education credits. There are several categories of membership that you can see on the website, and there is a lot of information available on the site even if you’re a visitor and not a member. Additionally, Clarafi is a website that offers distance learning in the form of tutorials that focus primarily on software tools for molecular visualizations. The site offers subscriptions as well as individual course purchases. My colleague, Betsy Palay, and I also have co-developed an online course called “ S.P.A.R.K. | Five strategies for the visual communication of science”, which offers an introduction to core concepts of visual communication specifically for science.  

What motivated you to create an online course
in visual communications for scientists?

The course was designed for scientists who are already making (or want to make) their own figures for publications, presentations or other science-communication efforts. There aren’t a lot of ways for scientists to get this training, and yet, scientists are the ones making most of the scientific images today. We understand that many people are simply not able to take a break from their research to attend a formal graduate program in visual communication. S.P.A.R.K. is not a software course, because we know that there are many software packages out there, and people are going to use the ones they have access to or that they’re comfortable with. Instead, S.P.A.R.K. is a systematic approach to creating a science picture, and draws from principles of design, fine arts and cognitive science. The principles we teach apply to all types of images, and we’ve packaged them into a five-step process that’s easy to follow. It was our hope to pass on the best practices that we’ve learned and developed to scientists and other people making their own visuals. It’s also a great intro course for people interested in entering the profession, who can’t attend a formal graduate program.

Author’s note: I had the opportunity to review the S.P.A.R.K. course and highly recommend it for scientists who are looking to improve their visual-design skills. As I stated in my review of the course, I think scientists really will appreciate the process-driven approach that consistently can be applied to the design of any visual, along with the useful handouts that guide you through the process. The course works best if you have a specific figure or other visual in mind that you need help in further developing from concept to finished product.

How have you had the most success in finding projects
to work on as a freelancer?

For me, it's always been about relationships. I began my career as an in-house medical illustrator and worked for small biomedical media companies before I started my own business. I stay in contact with the people I've worked with in the past, because if and when they move on to other companies, I want them to think of me when a project comes across their desk. That’s how it works for freelancers. Once you’ve worked for a while, people start to recommend you and introduce you to other people. It takes effort to stay in touch, but I enjoy doing it because I genuinely like my former co-workers and clients! And I love talking to scientists and really anyone who has found themselves working in the area where science and art overlap.  

Are there any job boards or search tips to share with others?

The AMI has a weekly email that advertises jobs, which is just one benefit of membership. I sometimes see jobs pop up on other sites, but it’s pretty rare. It can be tricky to search for jobs in this field. Sometimes we’re called “medical illustrators", “scientific illustrators" or “biomedical visualizers.” Often graphic-design and data-visualization jobs fit these skills and interests. People in the field are starting to get involved in virtual reality, so any place that does medical or scientific VR may also employ us.  

Weekly jobs roundup

Here is a short roundup of jobs available in the area of scientific illustration. These jobs were found using some of the keywords that Tami suggested above and searching a generic job board. Of note, many general science-communication jobs also list out experience with Adobe Illustrator software as a job qualification, so searches using the term “illustrator” will yield wide results and more specific keywords may be needed. However, this also points out the fact that if you enjoy both writing and visual design then there are many jobs available that need a general science communicator to do both. For more search tips, see the previous post on #sciart careers. Finally, you also can check out Tami Tolpa’s resume on her website that lists out companies she worked for before starting her own business.

  • The Allen Institute for Cell Science (Seattle, Wash.) is hiring a UX designer to join the Animated Cell team. The nonprofit biomedical research center is focused on understanding the organizational complexities of human cells through imaging the internal architecture of cells. The person will lead efforts for the design of the institute’s scientific visualization web products. Minimum qualifications include a bachelor’s degree in computer science, information management or related field and four years of relevant experience. No application deadline is provided. (H/t to Tami Tolpa for sharing this job posting.)  
  • WebMD is hiring for several positions in the area of scientific visualizations, including an associate graphics editor and UX/digital manager. Both of these positions are located in New York City. See the job postings for details on qualifications. No application deadlines are provided.  
  • The Center for Children’s Surgery within the School of Medicine at the University of Colorado–Denver is recruiting for a medical animator to develop visual media to educate patients and for research and teaching purposes. Minimum qualifications include a bachelor’s degree in medical/biological illustration, computer animation or related field and five years of experience in 3-D animation techniques. No application deadline is provided.  
  • The Society for Neuroscience(Washington, D.C.) is seeking a production coordinator to oversee the publication of both online and print content for the website Minimum qualifications include a bachelor’s degree in science, business or communications area and two years of relevant experience. No application deadline is provided.  
  • The biotech company 10x Genomics is hiring a scientific illustrator in its Pleasanton, Calif., location to produce visual content for technical documents and presentation materials. Minimum qualifications include a degree in a relevant science field and two years of illustrative experience. No application deadline is provided. 

Donna Kridelbaugh is a contributor to the ASBMB Careers Blog. She holds an advanced degree in microbiology and is a former lab manager.  

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