Humans of Scicomm: Iris Fung on Drawing Up a Career in Science Illustration

Science and Us Team
Oct 26 · 5 min read
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Iris Fung is a SF-based visual artist. She earned her S. B. in Biology from MIT and currently works at Benchling. She likes pretty art, tasty food, and bad humor, and tries to produce all three each day. Check out her website at irisfung.com, or her Instagram at @pewris!

Iris’s piece is part of Science and Us’s on-going publication, Humans of Scicomm. All stories and experiences are written by the respective science communicators. Links to reach out to Iris are located above. Thank you for your support!

I initially stepped into the professor’s office to ask for a research job in his lab. As we talked, our conversation wandered from my interest in biology to my love of art. The professor then planted a new idea into my head that I had never conceived of before, one that has since rooted firmly and sprouted. He introduced the idea of a scientific illustrator: someone who had a deep understanding of the science, and used their artistic skill and energy to better communicate complicated concepts. I walked in with no idea that it was a career option, but I walked away knowing it was the career I wanted.

For the first time, I was really excited by the future I pictured for myself. However, as thrilled as I was about the idea of becoming a scientific illustrator, I didn’t know where to begin. There were no upperclassmen to tell me what classes to take for it; in fact, there was no series of classes in my entire undergraduate program that would put me in that direction. This hyper-niche path was something I would need to carve out for myself.

The first thing I set out to do was surround myself with people who were already living that experience. I thought, even if I don’t know what to do, they could point me in the right direction. Unfortunately, there’s no magic trick to getting started at building a network. I cold-called everyone I could find in the Boston area whose job title even vaguely related to science illustration. I was lucky enough to find several folks who very generously gave me their time and knowledge. In general, I’ve found people are very willing and happy to talk about something they like doing, so the first coffee is usually easy to arrange. However, the tricky part is getting people to talk to you a second time and invest in you. Some key things I’ve learned are:

  1. Come with an objective in mind: Have a specific problem you’d like to work through with this person. In addition to having one less problem on your plate when you’re done, you’ll both have accomplished something together! People like feeling their time was well used helping you, rather than walking away feeling like they just rambled for an hour.
  2. Get to know their expertise: What do they have deep knowledge in? Are they an Illustrator wiz? Do they have a great feel for typography? Is their eye for color uncanny? Make sure you let them know this is what you’re keeping them in your back pocket for — and then talk to them when situations come up! People like being asked for an expert opinion.
  3. Let them know when they’ve made a difference: People mentor inexperienced, younger folks because they feel their time spent helping you is valuable. Make sure you make them feel that their time was well spent. Share your successes with them and make sure to include them in that joy because — let’s be real — you wouldn’t be where you are without them.

The folks I found became wonderful mentors for me and taught me everything from the big pictures to the tiny details. They were a second pair of eyes for critiques, a guide to what books I should read up on, and an ear to the ground for professional opportunities, ultimately leading me to my first science illustration internship.

After securing an internship, the second thing I set out to do was to hone my skills to ensure I could “make it”. This might seem a little backward (and I did at least have enough skill to get my foot in the door), but I’ve always been a big believer in figuring out how to get paid while I learn. Working at an actual scientific journal company meant I got to experience the rhythms and demands of being a scientific illustrator. When I recognized that my graphic design eye was weak, I picked up contract design work on the side making brochures and flyers to exercise that muscle. In my comparative anatomy class, I asked to do a poster-sized scientific illustration instead of a 12-page paper. When I found my tech-focused college didn’t offer the art classes that would push me in the way I needed, I struck up a friendly chord with a local art school’s figure drawing professor and ended up sneaking into her class through the kiln room every Tuesday for a semester.

For my last couple years of college, I lived and breathed science illustration. Immersing myself was exactly the right thing to do — even if it slowly led me to realize I didn’t want to become a full-time science illustrator. I would never have discovered that if I didn’t give myself all the experiences I found on the way to that realization. That journey highlighted what I loved about science illustration — the creativity, the breadth of science I was exposed to, and the storytelling — while also exposing what I didn’t, like the intensity of an editorial schedule and the tedium of certain mediums.

I’m still on my journey with science illustration. While I’m no longer pursuing full-time science illustration, I keep my toes dipped in by freelancing. It gives me the flexibility to pick the projects I’m excited about and the privilege of watching a scientist’s face light up when I nail exactly what they’re trying to say. It’s always a treat to speak with other folks in science communication because we all share the same love of helping others understand some super cool concepts. It’s especially exciting to talk with someone who’s just beginning their scientific illustration journey. If you’re interested in getting started or just want to chat, drop me a line!

Special thanks to Dr. Mark Bathe, Bang Wong, Andrew Tang, and Lori Messenger.

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