In this post, we interview Gloria Fuentes, PhD. Gloria is a Scientific Illustrator/Animator and founder of The Visual Thinker LLP. Prior to her career in scientific illustration, Gloria participated in a variety of biology research projects across the globe. Read the interview below to learn all about Gloria’s exciting career path and find resources to give yourself a jumpstart in scientific illustration.

What got you interested in science and biology in particular? Did you always want to be involved in science and research?

Since very early in life I was thrilled with learning about the subtle nuances that dictate how nature works. Yet, I found that much of what I learned about nature was based on observation. I wanted to get deeper insights into the logical inner workings of the world around me. Thus, I was driven to pursue in-depth studies in the sciences. Back then in Spain there were not as many options for University degrees as there are today. Chemistry and Physics were my favourite subjects.

However the year before entering University, I started having some doubts. I love meeting people and talking in different languages, and I was excited to see that I could get a degree in “Translation and Interpretation”. To get accepted into this degree program, I needed to study latin and ancient greek, two subjects that I dropped in favor of maths, physics, and chemistry. I was ready to spend my summer with a tutor to get up to speed on these subjects, but then I had a little accident and broke my arm. As a result, I completed my university exams while writing with my left hand. This was excruciating. Once finished, I just felt too tired and decided to join the Chemistry school and thus began my career in the sciences.

What has your career path been like?

After my initial doubts, I took a conventional but dynamic path to become a researcher. 

In my last year at University, I started working on a research project in one of the departments with a grant from the government and I loved it! This initial research experience gave me the opportunity to get a grant and pursue my PhD in one of the research institutes in Madrid (Spain). There, I managed to secure extra funding to collaborate on a project with a lab in the UK. I ended up completing my thesis on 2 different scientific topics and in between 2 countries.

Later on, I moved to the Netherlands with a postdoc position awarded by the Marie Curie association. This was followed with different positions in the Cancer Institute in Spain, the Bioinformatic Institute in Singapore, and RIKEN in Japan. As I said, a very dynamic research career!

What prompted you to make the transition from researcher to scientific illustrator?

I left my job during my pregnancy. It was the first time in years that I paused and had time to think. I am married to another crazy scientist, and had some doubts on how to raise a family with the two of us working long hours and changing jobs and countries too frequently. 

One day, I went to a workshop on Scientific Illustration, and everything suddenly made sense. I could do creative work within science!!! I have always been interested in including visual content in my projects. I still have the drawings that I did with my mum on acetate transparency sheets for a talk I gave about cancer. 

Acetate transparencies focused on cancer. Gloria and her mother worked together on these transparencies when Gloria needed to give a talk about cancer.

Thankfully, I already had some graphic design skills – I knew how to use Illustrator and was very comfortable in Photoshop because I am an avid traveling photographer. Nonetheless, I knew I needed to boost my knowledge a bit if I wanted to take on scientific illustration as a career. So I started watching every tutorial I could find on YouTube about the topic. And since then I have been in love with the field.

What tools and resources have you used to build your scientific illustration skills?

I am still working on building them, but I watch a lot of tutorials on YouTube, and enroll in courses on several platforms, like Udemy, Domestika.  Two of my favorite courses have been:

On my scientist salary, I was always a bit financially limited in my course options. One year near Christmas, I came across S.P.A.R.K., so I gave myself a present. It was fantastic! The content in S.P.A.R.K. is perfectly organized and structured. The clear learning path throughout the course makes it easy to follow and stay on task. Keeping focus and building a curriculum are among the most difficult things about self-learning and S.P.A.R.K. made both of these things very easy. 

Finally, the Association of Medical Illustrators has been a highly influential source of skills and knowledge. Members of the association are very engaged and the amount of information there is impressive. This year many AMI conferences have moved online. This has given me the opportunity to meet with members through Zoom. It has been fantastic! I have also volunteered to help with their social media content. This has put me in contact with super cool illustrators who are always willing to help.

What do you see as the main benefits of researchers working with scientific illustrators?

I have been deeply involved in the scientific community for more than 20 years. Our biggest complaint has always been that there are insufficient funds invested in research. I truly believe every country should increase their budget for science. However, in general, there is a lack of communication between researchers and society. Perhaps if we communicate better with society, this will lead to more interest and investment in research.

One of the greatest barriers to communication between society at large and scientists is that we communicate using language, verbal as well as visual, that is unfamiliar to non-scientists. We get trapped in difficult jargon and complicated graphs that only a very select group of people can understand. 

Scientific illustrators work very hard to break this communication barrier. They can create beautiful visuals that translate scientific concepts for the general public. Indeed, we have seen a lot of this during the pandemic (see this infographic from the CDC for example). People want to know how to stay safe, but they need to get information about the virus in a way that is easy to understand. We can’t expect people to go to scientific papers as their primary source of information. 

It has been a boost to my confidence that this field is strong and is going to survive through these times, even though funds may be compromised after the health crisis. 

Beyond communicating with the general public, science is no longer a field for one team with particular expertise. It has become very multidisciplinary, and it is common to work in big consortiums. Illustrators are not only needed to wrap up a project with beautiful assets, but they can be key players in bringing experts from different disciplines together at early phases of a project. They make it easier for people from different scientific disciplines to understand one another and work together from the start of a project through to completion.

What have been some of your favorite illustration projects?

I particularly enjoy creating infographics. While working on them I can research a particular topic in the scientific literature before engaging my creative mind. This is a  very similar process to writing a scientific review. 

I am also very proud of a cover I created for the Genome Institute of Singapore. They needed an asset representing the 3 ethnic groups in the country for a sequencing project. I got a good idea on what to do but I had initial doubts because it was more artistic than technical. Ultimately, the picture came out great and was featured on the cover of Cell! This project showed me that I’m a bit more artistic than I thought!

Gloria’s Cell Cover ©2020 by The Visual Thinker, LLP.

Some other examples of my work include:

What advice do you have for anyone who’d like to make a career in scientific illustration?

If you like science and have artistic inclinations, this is your field. Depending on where you are in your life and career and if money is not an issue, I’d recommend joining an accredited masters program. 

If you cannot, do not give up. It only means you need to work harder. Build your own curriculum and keep learning everyday. There are beautiful resources out there and I’d definitely recommend S.P.A.R.K.!

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Keep working on your dream. No one can tell you where the limit is but you!

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